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Nothing comes easy for these Utes, including supposed Pac-12 tuneup game with neighboring Utah Valley

WAC’s Wolverines pushed Pac-12’s Utes to the limit before falling 75-67 at the Huntsman Center

Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) drives into the UVU defense during a game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) drives into the UVU defense during a game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The first of two expected tuneups for Utah’s men’s basketball team this week before the Utes return to Pac-12 play next week at Arizona State didn’t go exactly as planned at the empty, energy deficient Huntsman Center on Tuesday night.

Simply put, Utah Valley refused to play along as it cashed a $40,000 paycheck for the visit.

But after the visiting Wolverines cut a seemingly safe 15-point Utah lead to a single point with less than four minutes remaining, Utah used some sticky defense to get out of the woods and gutted out a 75-67 win to improve to 3-1 and rebound from last Saturday’s 82-64 loss to rival BYU.

“Nobody said that this was going to be easy, and it certainly wasn’t, but it was a good win for our guys,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, who jumped in a car immediately after the victory and conducted his postgame interviews via Zoom, as a passenger, en route to his son’s high school game at Olympus.

The thing is, games like this are supposed to be easier for the Utes. But with no fans to speak of and UVU’s confidence growing with each basket in the final minutes, the Utes had a fight on their hands. They will step up a level on Friday against Idaho, then presumably play against only Pac-12 foes the remainder of the season.

Suddenly, prospects for a winning record in Pac-12 play don’t look nearly as good as two weeks ago when they opened with a dominant win over Washington.

They need to get better, Krystkowiak said, but on the other hand he was pleased with how his team stepped it up a notch defensively in the final three minutes, 21 seconds when it held UVU scoreless and pulled away from a 68-67 lead.

“I thought our guys really locked in,” he said. “We got a couple steals, made a few plays.”

Branden Carlson made a big block, while Rylan Jones and Timmy Allen came up with huge steals. Utah Valley committed 20 turnovers, including three in the final three minutes when the outcome was in doubt.

“We managed to make some plays when we needed to, but it was a gutsy ball game,” Krystkowiak said. “UVU stayed in it, made some big shots late, ran a couple of actions we hadn’t seen a lot of, took us by surprise.”

Indeed, second-year coach Mark Madsen has himself a decent team that could make some noise in the WAC this year. Georgia Tech transfer Evan Cole led the Wolverines with 31 points on 12 of 16 shooting and also grabbed 10 rebounds.

Although he was quiet down the stretch before grabbing a key rebound off a missed free throw, Allen led the Utes with 19 points, while Carlson added 14 points and four blocks and Jones and Alfonso Plummer chipped in 12 apiece.

Not having a go-to guy down the stretch hurt the Utes, but Krystkowiak said that’s not always a bad thing at this level.

“I think there is always a lot of strength and validity in having multiple guys who can score in double figures,” he said. “Teams at this level take your top options away and you have to have a supporting staff.”

Having been crushed on the boards by BYU last Saturday, the Utes made strides in that department but still lost the battle 34-29 to UVU, which matched them in size.

Utah’s best moments came right after halftime, as Plummer, Allen and Jones keyed an 11-2 run to push a six-point lead at the break to 52-37 with around 15 minutes remaining in the second half.

Utah Valley wouldn’t go away, though. Cole hit a 3-pointer with 5:22 left to pull the Wolverines within five, then made a 3-point play after a Plummer 3-pointer, and it was a fight to the finish.

“Credit to UVU. I thought they stepped up and made plays,” Krystkowiak said. “They executed a couple of sets that weren’t high on the frequency charts for us and caught us by surprise.”

Fardaws Aimaq’s dunk with 4:07 left cut Utah’s lead to 68-65, and the Wolverines got the ball back with a chance to tie after the under-four minute media timeout. Trey Woodbury made a driving layup after the timeout with 3:21 remaining to cut Utah’s lead to 68-67, but that is as close as the Wolverines would get.

Riley Battin found Carlson for an inside hoop after a timeout to push Utah’s lead to 72-67 and squash UVU’s upset hopes.

“The five defensive (minded) guys we put on the court, subbing offense for defense the last four minutes of the game really stepped up and gave us a big lift,” Krystkowiak said.

If there was a knock on Utah in the first half, it was that the Utes seemed to lack energy, especially early. Carlson led Utah in the first half with 12 points and had two blocks, although it seems like he should have been credited with more.

Former BYU reserve Colby Leifson hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first half for the Wolverines, while Cole — who didn’t play in UVU’s 82-60 loss at BYU on Nov. 28 — had 13 points and five rebounds in the first half and got even better in the second.

Aimaq, the 6-foot-11 center from Vancouver, British Columbia, who had a career-high 27 points and a school-record 20 rebounds in UVU’s 93-88 loss to Wyoming on Saturday, was held to no points and two rebounds in the first half while playing just eight minutes due to foul trouble.

He finished with seven points and eight rebounds, recovering nicely in the second half.

The Utes entered the game No. 6 in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.96, but got just 15 helpers on 28 field goals.

But a win is a win, Krystkowiak said, and at this stage of the season when almost everybody else has played more games and is closer to midseason form, that’s about all a coach can ask for.