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Utes return home with a promising opportunity

PULLMAN, Wash. — Opportunity is knocking for the Utah Utes. In fact, it’s pretty much kicking the door as well.

After Saturday’s 77-70 victory at Washington State, Utah is in prime position to earn a first-round bye in next month’s Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. The Utes (17-9, 9-6), winners of four straight games, remain in sole possession of the fourth and final pass into the quarterfinals.

Then there’s the remaining schedule. Utah’s final three games are in the Huntsman Center. This week, UCLA and USC come to town. The Utes are just one game back of both teams, who are tied for second, in the standings.

“We’re excited for next week,” said senior forward Tyler Rawson, who noted similar feelings for the road sweep over the Washington schools. “It’s hard to win in the Pac-12. So we’re excited here. We’re going to recover this weekend and then we’ll be ready to tackle it next week for the L.A. schools.”

Rawson was certainly prepared for the Cougars. He wound up with 15 points and 15 rebounds as the Utes extended their win streak to four games and capped their Pac-12 road record with a 5-4 mark.

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, though, noted that the latter won’t amount to anything if the Utes don’t take care of business at home.

Following a road sweep of the Oregon schools in January, Krystkowiak said they performed poorly in trying to defend their home court against Arizona State and Arizona.

“So we’re not a team that can pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve accomplished on the road,” Krystkowiak said. “All that goes out the window if you can’t protect your home court. So that’s where our focus lies.”

Utah is in control of its own situation. Besides the games against UCLA and USC, the Utes host Colorado (March 3).

“The days are ticking down and we’ve got to be ready to go,” said Krystkowiak, who insists the approach is on the next task at hand and not the grouping of games.

The “home” stretch comes on the heels of a solid performance at Washington State. Despite being without contributors Sedrick Barefield (apparent rib cage injury) and Jayce Johnson (foot injury), Utah jumped out to a 33-13 lead and held on to prevail.

Justin Bibbins scored a game-high 24 points and Gabe Bealer added 18, making six of the Utes’ 12 shots from 3-point range.

“The only thing I’m not really pleased about is the number of offensive rebounds that (Washington State) had,” Krystkowiak said of the 15 second-chance opportunities the Cougars had. “That was really our Achilles heel and that’s something that we need to focus on if we want to get where we want to be at the end of this season.”

Krystkowiak acknowledged that “more and more” the Utes are understanding that “when you play defense you can be in a lot of games.”

Washington State shot just 36.1 percent (22 of 61) against the Utes. However, the Cougars did connect on 10 shots from 3-point range during their second-half narrowing of the deficit.

“When our defense wasn’t working we were playing defense by scoring on offense,” said Rawson, who added that the Utes did make some clutch stops when their lead was cut to four twice down the stretch.

Bealer agreed.

“I think at the end it came down to some of those turnovers,” he said.

As for his success from 3-point range, Bealer explained it was just a matter of letting it fly.

“I just go out there and hoop,” said the senior.


Twitter: @DirkFacer