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Utah hammers Arizona State, 98-59, to close regular season on high note

Utes finish regular season 11-12 overall, 8-11 in the Pac-12 and will be the No. 7 seed at the Pac-12 tournament.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Mikael Jantunen (20) looks to shoot as Utah hosts Oregon State, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The Utes finished the regular season with a 98-59 rout of visiting Arizona State on Saturday, March 6, 2021.

A one-sided affair between the University of Utah and Arizona State had long gotten out of hand, long been decided when Lahat Thioune found himself with the ball on the top of the key.

With 16 seconds to play, Thioune thought about it. Half a ball fake, a jab step, a jab step, a jab step, and finally, Thioune tossed up the first 3-point attempt of his career, The 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore buried it, and the Utes bench lost its collective mind. The prime highlight within that moment was Riley Battin throwing his arms up, waiving a towel, sprinting from halfway up the sideline to the baseline in celebration.

This was the kind of afternoon it was at the Huntsman Center. Everyone played, everyone played well, everyone got to feel good about themselves, and after an up-and-down, COVID-impacted season, it felt like the perfect capper to the regular season and the perfect way to go charging into the Pac-12 tournament next week in Las Vegas.

Utah 98, Arizona State 59. Thirteen players played, 11 of them scored, five of them finished in double-figures.

“It was really priceless, and Lahat, he’s money in some of our shooting games, and he’ll stretch out and shoot 3s with great accuracy,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “Not one that we drew up, but it was great to see him making some plays in the post, and then he was confident to let it fly.”

Krystkowiak was able to go deep into his bench, getting seldom-used reserves Brooks King, Jordan Kellier and Eli Ballstaedt extended minutes. King, a redshirt junior who will graduate this spring with a degree in finance, and Alfonso Plummer were the Utes honored postgame during Senior Day festivities.

Things got out of hand on Saturday to the point where King was able to play nine minutes. With 1:03 to go, the Utes got out on the fast break with Ballstaedt feeding Brooks in transition for a layup. That bucket, much like the Thioune triple, was met with great enthusiasm from the Utah bench.

“It means everything, especially having limited fans, I got to have my parents there,” said King, who has now seen action in four games this season and 15 games in his career. “To be able to go out on a high note, be able to get out there for a few minutes, have the guys cheer me on a little bit, it’s a dream come true.”

Added Plummer: “That was great, to be honest. I always see these guys working hard in practice, playing hard. You have to be happy for these guys, it was probably one of the best moments of the season. I’m really happy for all of them.”

Saturday was a feel-good afternoon in every sense for the Utah basketball team. The question now becomes, can the Utes do something with this feeling as the scene shifts to T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas next week?

Taking stock of 21 regular-season games, with a 39-point hammering of Arizona State freshest in everyone’s mind, there remain reasons to believe the seventh-seeded Utes (11-12, 8-11 Pac-12) can cause trouble for the rest of the bracket, but also reasons to believe they’ll be home Thursday after losing to No. 10 seed Washington in the first round on Wednesday afternoon (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

The Utes and Huskies split two regular-season meetings. Utah opened its season on Dec. 3 by beating them, 76-62 in Salt Lake City, while UW won in Seattle, 83-79, on Jan. 24. Utah controlled that second meeting for most of the first 38 minutes, but turnovers and poor execution did them in late.

Utah is unlikely to win a Pac-12 tournament game by 39 points, but if you believe some of what took place on Saturday can follow the Utes to Vegas, here is some food for thought.

With Arizona State offering no resistance for the full 40 minutes, the Utes shot the ball well with excellent shot-selection, finishing at 59.1% for the game. The ball movement was crisp, the unselfishness was evident. They got into the lane at will, they crashed the boards, they defended, they cut off the 3-point line to would-be shooters.

The best news out of Saturday was that Timmy Allen, Utah’s minutes-per-game leader at 34.9 per contest, only had to play 25. It is late in the season, the most-important stretch begins in four days, so running your No. 1 guy into the ground unnecessarily is not advisable.

Krystkowiak acknowledged postgame that Allen, a lock for All-Pac-12 honors when those superlatives are released early next week, is a little banged up and dealing with some nagging injuries.

OK, even more reason to let him have a seat when warranted.

“My focus isn’t as much on the benefit of allowing those guys to sit as it is those guys that came in and had a chance to play,” Krystkowiak said. “That’s where my sole focus is, and the essence of a team and undoubtedly, we need guys to step up when we’re in Vegas.

“If we’re going to be successful in Vegas, we need the bench and everybody else to be ready.”

Utah is 6-9 at the Pac-12 tournament since joining the league in 2011-12, but 0-4 since the event moved to T-Mobile Arena in 2017.

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