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Utah basketball: Utes stop Buffaloes, earn No. 3 seed in Pac-12 tourney

SALT LAKE CITY — There were a lot of ups and downs in Utah’s 64-54 win over Colorado. The highs, though, overshadowed the lows. The Utes clinched the No. 3 seed in next week’s Pac-12 Tournament, earning a first-round bye for the fourth consecutive year.

“That will age you,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said after a game where Colorado rallied from 18 points down in the first half and closed the gap to four with just under 9 1/2 minutes left to play.

The Utes recovered with a game-ending 18-12 stretch to prevail on Senior Night. Justin Bibbins set the pace with 10 of his 24 points over the late span. Teammate Sedrick Barefield, who missed a couple of games with a rib injury, made six free throws to help close things out. He wound up going 10 for 10 from the line.

Utah played most of the game without forward David Collette, who was limited to seven minutes of action because of a sprained ankle. As if that weren’t bad enough, forward Tyler Rawson was questionable after a bout with the flu. He managed to play, however, and grabbed seven rebounds in 30 minutes.

“So things got a little lean. But it was a terrific first half,” Krystkowiak said. “I thought it was a tale of two halves.”

Krystkowiak noted that the Utes stopped guarding when play resumed after the halftime break. The Buffaloes scored and got back into the game.

Colorado opened the second half with an 18-5 burst. Utah went more than seven minutes at one point without a single score.

Things changed, Krystkowiak explained, when the Utes made up their mind to start guarding again. He also credited guys like Bibbins and Barefield for stepping up and making big plays. Donnie Tillman and Chris Seeley made key contributions as well.

Utah led 41-24 at halftime. After two lead changes and one tie, the Utes pulled away with an 11-1 run midway through the half. They later added a 14-0 outburst to put the game well out of reach.

Colorado missed nine straight shots in the latter run and wound up making just 10 of 31 shots (32.3 percent) over the first 20 minutes. Utah, meanwhile, connected on 13 of 24 (54.2 percent) during the decisive half. Bibbins led all scorers with 14 points. Tillman chipped in 10 off the bench.

Bibbins, a graduate transfer from Long Beach State, played all but two minutes in the game. He was 6 of 11 from 3-point range.

“I’m not sure where we would be without him,” Krystkowiak said.

Bibbins, however, insists he just tries to make the right play.

“I knew what was at stake for this game,” said Bibbins, who mentioned that his coach told them the game was for third place and a bye in the conference tournament. “So I just tried to play my game, you know, and shots fell.”

Utah’s record improved to 19-10 overall and 11-7 in Pac-12 play. The Utes claimed a tiebreaker to become the No. 3 seed. They’ll play the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 6 Oregon and No. 11 Washington State in the quarterfinals — Thursday (9:30 p.m., FS1) at T-Mobile Arena.

Krystkowiak acknowledged it’s his favorite time of the year, recalling his high school days in Shelby, Montana.

“Now, all of a sudden, we’re doing it at an amazing venue in an amazing city,” he said. “It’s like the little Shelby divisional tournaments on steroids.”

This trip to Vegas, though, could be extra special in his mind.

“I’m completely convinced we can win the tournament,” Krystkowiak said. “And I’m sure there’s a lot of teams that feel the same thing. You’ve got to catch lightning in a bottle and catch a few breaks. But I think it’s a little bit open.”