Having trailed Arizona by as many as 29 points early in the second half Thursday night, the Runnin’ Utes got a few things going offensively and had trimmed the deficit to 17 when rejuvenated guard David Jenkins Jr. made a 3-point play with 11 minutes remaining.

Utes on the air


Utah (11-17, 4-14)


vs. Arizona State (11-16, 7-10)


Saturday, 8 p.m. MST


At Jon M. Huntsman Center


TV: ESPNU


Radio: ESPN AM 700


The No. 2-ranked Wildcats answered with dunks by Christian Koloko, Bennedict Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis, the latter so impressive and powerful that even some Utah fans in the crowd gasped in disbelief and amazement.

Time for the 11-17 Utes to roll over and play out the clock, right?

Hardly.

Several positives emerged from Utah’s 97-77 loss to the Wildcats in front of an announced crowd of 8,263 at the Huntsman Center, chief among them the fact that coach Craig Smith’s crew fought until the bitter end. A lot of teams that are 4-14 in conference play would have started getting ready for the next one. But not these guys.

“I love Dave (Jenkins Jr.). He’s a good guy. He just keeps with it. He just needs one shot to go in and he starts feeling it. So yeah, happy for him that he had a good game. But we all have to come back and keep getting better.” — Utah guard Gabe Madsen

“We showed a lot of character, getting back into that thing,” Smith said.

He was talking about the way the Utes scrapped back after falling behind 8-0 early, but easily could have been referring to the way Utah hung tough in the second half after Arizona (25-2, 15-1) flexed its mighty muscles.

Take away the final six minutes of the first half when Arizona went on a Kerr Kriisa-led 26-5 run and the first few minutes of the second half when Tubelis and Mathurin began playing like the All-Pac-12 first-team candidates that they are, and the Utes played evenly with the likely No. 3 overall seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament.

“They are one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, and No. 1 in assists, too,” Smith said. “They had 24 assists tonight. They just make plays. It is very rare that they don’t make the right play. And they trust one another.”

Gabe Madsen, who led the Utes with a team-high 15 points on 4 of 8 shooting from 3-point range, said the Utes trust each other as well, and games like the one Thursday night will show them what they need to improve on, but also serve as a reminder that they are on the right track.

“Just like any game, there are good things and bad things to take from it,” Madsen said. “We just gotta learn from it.”

The play of Jenkins and backup center Lahat Thioune off the bench were other bright spots for the Utes, Smith said.

Jenkins played three minutes apiece in the recent Bay Area road swing games, going 0 of 1 against Stanford and not taking a shot against Cal. Against Arizona, however, he had 14 points, six rebounds and three assists in 21 minutes.

Thioune played 16 minutes, went 3 of 7 from the field and added six rebounds in 16 minutes.

“I thought Lahat played an excellent game tonight — besides at the end where he missed a dunk and kinda missed an easy putback,” Smith said. “I thought he was big for us most of the night with his physicality defensively and just sticking his nose in there on the offensive boards. He was able to finish a lot of those plays.”

Regarding Jenkins, who started the season as Utah’s leading scorer and was averaging 14.7 points per game through December, Smith said the UNLV transfer seemed to flourish when he was challenged.

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“It was good to see him get going. He made some shots, scored a couple off out-of-bounds plays that we felt good about,” Smith said. “And I liked how he just played in attack mode, and was able to get to the foul line. … I thought he played very aggressively, and you could see that while he was out there.”

Madsen said Jenkins is a “confident guy” who inspires his teammates.

“I love Dave. He’s a good guy. He just keeps with it,” Madsen said. “He just needs one shot to go in and he starts feeling it. So yeah, happy for him that he had a good game. But we all have to come back and keep getting better.”

That begins Saturday night, when the Utes play host to Arizona State (11-16, 7-10) at 8 p.m. MST at the Huntsman Center. The game will be televised by ESPNU.

“Obviously we are feeling pretty good after the road sweep. We were feeling confident coming in,” Madsen said. “But you gotta have a short memory in this league. We can’t let this game carry into the Arizona State game and lose that one because we are down on ourselves.”

Arizona State got a last-second shot from Jalen Graham to beat the Utes 64-62 in Tempe on Jan. 17.

The Sun Devils have won four of their last five games, including Thursday night’s 82-65 demolition of Colorado in Boulder.