SALT LAKE CITY — It’s March Madness in many parts of the country. Unfortunately for the Utah Utes, the only exciting place at the Jon M. Huntsman Center Saturday night was near the Colorado bench.
Evan Battey scored a season-high 27 points and Jabari Walker had 22 points and 12 rebounds as the Buffaloes dominated most of the game and earned a convincing 84-71 win over Utah in the Pac-12 regular season finale for both teams.
With the win, the Buffs improved to 20-10 overall and 12-8 in league play, claiming fourth place in the conference standings and earning a first-round bye in the league tournament, which starts next Wednesday in Las Vegas.
The Utes fell to 11-19 and 4-16 in coach Craig Smith’s inaugural year and got the 11 seed in the tournament.
The Utes will play sixth-seeded Washington at 9:30 p.m. MST Wednesday. Utah will need a miracle to follow in the footsteps of the women’s team, which also accepted an underdog status but is playing for the Pac-12 title Sunday.
“Basketball can be incredibly humbling,” said Utes head coach Craig Smith, “but now everybody is 0-0 and it’s win or go home. To win in the postseason, every player has to be on board and we don’t have to beat 11 (other teams); we just have to beat four.”
There was no chance of that Saturday. An early evening snowstorm might have thinned the crowd, but it didn’t affect Battey, a senior from Los Angeles who has battled significant health problems including a stroke and a couple of seizures, to continue his basketball career.
Battey, a 6-foot-8 senior who has trimmed from 280 to 260 pounds in the last couple of years, made 10 of 17 shots, including 6-for-9 from 3-point range.
While the Utes were honoring four seniors by putting them in the starting lineup, Battey forced a quick lineup change with a series of shots from well beyond the 3-point stripe.
“I thought starting the four seniors was the right thing to do,” Smith said, “but they started off by hitting those haymakers and we had to call timeout right away.
“It’s a tough matchup when their bigs are outside hitting the 3s. To win, you have to be able to guard people and we didn’t do a good job of that.”
Colorado built the lead to as many as 24 points, and it could have been more if not for a brief scoring spurt by David Jenkins, one of the Utes’ seniors.
Jenkins had 14 of his 18 points in the first half. Colorado still put up 50 points by intermission and had a comfortable lead.
“A good win for us,” said Colorado coach Tad Boyle. “We could have let down (after last week’s win over No. 2 Arizona), but we didn’t. This is the first time in 53 years a Colorado team has had a winning record on the road. I challenged them with that, and they rose to the challenge.”
The Utes had a pair of second-half rallies, led by Branden Carlson (also 18 points) and a flurry of impressive scoring displays by Lazar Stefanovic (12 points) and Jaxon Brenchley (eight).
Every Utah scoring spurt, though, was almost always answered by a long 3 by Battey or Walker. As a team, Colorado shot just over 50% and made 14 of 23 (60.8%) from long range.
“(The Buffs) are more known for their defense,” Smith said. “They are playing really well right now and are doing a good job with their (offensive) spacing.
“We have at least three NCAA (Tournament) teams in our league, and right now they’re playing right up there with them.”
One of the few bright spots for the Utes was their bench play, which accounted for 30 points.
Besides Brenchley, guard Rollie Worster performed well with his usual batch of hustle plays. Gabe Madsen also tried to light a fire under his teammates, but was just 1-for-6 from 3-point range.