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Utes continue tough home stretch against No. 4 Arizona State

Utah Utes bench cheer in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. Arizona won 94-82.
Utah Utes bench cheer in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. Arizona won 94-82.
Jeffrey D. Allred,

SALT LAKE CITY — Considering how Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak equates Pac-12 play to a marathon, the Utes are in the midst of an uphill run. The challenging stretch features back-to-back games against ranked teams in the Huntsman Center. It began with a 94-82 loss to No. 14 Arizona on Thursday and continues with a clash against No. 4 Arizona State on Sunday (6 p.m., ESPNU).

Before it started, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said without exaggeration it’s the best set of opponents coming through town since the Utes joined the conference in 2011-12.

Adding to the degree of difficulty is the different styles they play. The Wildcats — with projected top NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton — have a post presence. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, favor a more up-tempo pace. They’re sixth in the nation in scoring offense (90 ppg).

“They look to me to be miserable to try to guard, a lot of firepower and quickness,” Krystkowiak said.

Arizona State is led by senior guard Tra Holder, who leads the Pac-12 with 22.1 points per game. After opening the season with a school-record 12 consecutive wins, the Sun Devils have dropped two straight — falling at Arizona (84-78) and then at Colorado (90-81 in overtime).

Utah, meanwhile, is seeking to snap a nine-game losing streak to teams ranked in the top 5. The Utes’ last win over teams in the top 5 was a 51-49 upset of No. 1 Alabama on Dec. 30, 2002.

History, though, isn’t on the mind of Krystkowiak. He’s focused on the task at hand. Following Thursday’s loss to Arizona, his take was that every game is a “true test.”

Although pleased that the Utes rallied from a 17-point deficit to tie the game three times down the stretch, Krystkowiak noted some shortcomings. Specifically, two areas of focus written on the board inside the locker room — rebounding and transition. Arizona won the battle on the boards 46-23, and Krystkowiak estimated that Utah gave up 18-20 points off of miscues on transitions.

Junior guard Sedrick Barefield is confident the Utes will learn from the game. The “biggest thing” in his opinion was the poor rebounding numbers.

“I think that half of it is mental and half of it is working on it,” Barefield said.

At 10-4 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-12, the Utes are eager to put it all together as well as they did in victories last week at Oregon and Oregon State. Barefield made big strides against Arizona. He scored a team-high 23 points on 7-of-16 shooting, including 6 of 11 from 3-point range. The accuracy upped his percentages on the season to 34.3 percent from the field and 28 percent from beyond the arc.

“It was a good night for him to get it going,” Krystkowiak said. “We just didn’t have enough of the other components.”

Utah has not been swept at home by Pac-12 travel partners since California and Stanford prevailed in 2013.

No. 4 Arizona State (12-2, 0-2) at Utah (10-4, 2-1)

Huntsman Center

Sunday, 6 p.m.


Radio: ESPN 700AM