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Utah Utes clobber Colorado, grab share of Pac-12 lead

BOULDER, Colo. — For the 13th-ranked Utah Utes, the door was ajar before they even took the floor Saturday night at the Coors Events Center. A win over Colorado, coupled with Arizona’s upset loss at Arizona State earlier in the day, would give them a share of the Pac-12 lead.

Add in the fact that the Buffaloes were without scoring leader Askia Booker, who was sidelined with an injury after playing in 114 consecutive games, and things looked even more promising for the Utes to move into a first-place tie with the sixth-ranked Wildcats.

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak was even dressed up a bit for the occasion. Krystkowiak wore a bright red sport coat for the so-called rivalry game.

When opportunity knocked, the Utes responded quickly. They kicked the door open, capitalizing on a fast start en route to overpowering the Buffaloes 79-51.

“There’s no doubt we caught Colorado at a good time with Booker out,” Krystkowiak said. “So you can’t put too much into it.”

Krystkowiak did note, however, that the Utes have been making some good progress.

“The defense is what won the ballgame for us,” Krystkowiak said. “We really guarded, again.”

The offense was also solid.

Brandon Taylor scored 18 points and Jordan Loveridge finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds as Utah improved to 18-4 overall and 8-2 in Pac-12 play. The conference co-leaders return home this week to face Stanford on Thursday and California on Sunday. Among their eight remaining regular-season games is a Feb. 28 showdown with Arizona in the Huntsman Center.

That, however, will remain on the back burner for now.

“It’s a one game at a time,” Krystkowiak said. “I’ve always said that when you’re done playing 18 you add them all up, you figure out who’s playing who in Vegas. But it’s very temporary at this point. We’ve got to continue to grind.”

The Utes are all about the task at hand. They were dominant early against the short-handed Buffaloes — racing out to a 9-0 lead. While Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl paced the offense with four points apiece during the decisive run, Utah’s defense was even more locked in. Colorado missed its first seven shots from the field, along with two free throws, as the Utes pulled away. A 6-3 rebounding advantage to begin the game also proved pivotal.

Utah never trailed and went on to lead 17-3 a few minutes later and 35-23 at halftime. Although Colorado was energized by the return of forward Josh Scott, who entered the game at 16:16 of the first half, it wasn’t nearly enough to undo the early damage. The junior, who had missed six straight games with back problems, had nine points at halftime — sharing game-high scoring honors with Wright and Taylor.

The Utes squashed any potential momentum shifts by connecting from the outside. They wound up making 13 3-point shots in the lopsided affair. Taylor made 6 of his 9 attempts.

“They were just going in,” Taylor said. “I like shooting in this gym, a lot.”

Beginning with a 3-pointer Taylor hit at the first-half buzzer, Utah reeled off four straight makes from beyond the arc during a stretch that continued with a second-half barrage of three. The latter began with Taylor and was followed by two from Loveridge. The shots put the game well out of reach — extending the lead to 44-23 with 18:12 left to play.

Before the game was complete, the Utes’ advantage had swelled to as high as 36 points.

“We shot the ball real well,” said Krystkowiak, who noted that they finished with 20 assists and shared it. “ ... It was a good performance.”


Twitter: @DirkFacer