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Utes still in position for a top 4 finish entering final week

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak wasn’t happy with a lot of things after Saturday’s 74-58 loss to USC in the Huntsman Center.

For obvious reasons, he didn’t like the outcome. He also didn’t appreciate the 12:30 p.m. tip time after an evening game with UCLA on Thursday. Then, there were questions about Kyle Kuzma and the overall scandal that surrounds college basketball. Krystkowiak made it clear he didn’t appreciate the large media contingent covering the negative news when a small group was in attendance at his regular press conference earlier in the week.

On top of all that, Krystkowiak “karate-chopped” a clipboard during a heated moment late in the game.

However, not all was bad. The Utes (18-10, 10-7) are still in position to earn a first-round bye in next month’s Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.

“It’s a goal for every team in our league, whether they want to talk about it or not, to not have to play on Wednesday,” Krystkowiak said. “That’s one thing I know there. You get your little ticket punched if you win the tournament. I do know that winning three games is a hell of a lot easier than winning four games.”

Even so, Krystkowiak acknowledged that it’s not a magic pill. The Utes discovered that last year.

“We fought like heck to get to the bye and then got beat by Cal in the first game,” Krystkowiak explained. “But, yeah, it’s more palatable. It means that we finished in the top third of a really good basketball conference.”

Krystkowiak said that has him excited.

“I’ll think about that tonight and tomorrow,” he continued. “Then it’ll be time to gear up for Colorado.”

The Utes close out the regular season Saturday (5 p.m., P12N) at home against the Buffaloes (16-13, 8-9).

There’s a logjam of sorts as teams jockey for tournament seeding. However, Utah holds a lot of tiebreakers in its bid for a top four finish entering the conclusion of conference play.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun next week preparing for Colorado. It’s going to be fun preparing for them all week,” said senior forward Tyler Rawson. “It’ll be nice to get our legs back under us. So I’m looking forward to the challenge. We all are. This game could be huge momentum going in to the Pac-12 tournament.”

Rawson is confident the Utes will be OK despite the setback to USC. He said there’s room for improvement and they’re capable of doing the things that led to the five-game win streak.

“We’ve been playing our best basketball towards the end of the season,” Rawson added. “Today we just didn’t bring it.”

Utah shot just 40.7 percent (22 of 54) in falling to USC for the second time this season. The Utes were outscored 22-9 in points off turnovers and 12-4 in second-chance points.

“The game plan was fine, it was just the layups. You don't settle when you miss layups. That’s a mistake. So it was some of those combinations I thought that hurt us and our turnovers,” Krystkowiak said. “We got a dose for why they lead our conference in creating turnovers. They have some length, they get out in passing lanes, strong hands, and they were ripping us and doing some things taking it away from us, and that was costly. But it wasn't a shot selection issue at all.”

USC coach Andy Enfield praised his team for their defense in sweeping the mountain road trip. The Trojans improved to 21-9 overall and 12-5 in the Pac-12 with the victories.

“We had a lot of intensity tonight. We put in effort and we had the will to win. We've got guys that play great defense,” Enfield said. “We held Colorado to 64 the other day and Utah to 58 today. That’s how you win on the road in this league. Especially in two tough places to play like Salt Lake City and Boulder.”

EXTRA STUFF: The residence that Rawson shares with teammates Jake Connor and Beau Rydalch was burglarized while the Utes defeated UCLA Thursday night. Rawson said “it was just a freak thing” and did not distract the players on Saturday. … David Collette and Rawson each had seven rebounds as Utah outboarded USC 32-31. … Collette and Justin Bibbins recorded three steals apiece. … The attendance was generously announced as 13,598.


Twitter: @DirkFacer