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‘Bring a little bit of dog to the fight’: Utes end long layoff at Pac-12 favorite UCLA on Thursday hoping to end road losing skid

Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak and sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen say Utes are better prepared to win conference games on the road this year, and not having to face hostile and energized crowds at Pauley Pavilion and the Galen Center will help

Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) looks to the basket while USC Trojans forward Onyeka Okongwu (21), Utah Utes forward Mikael Jantunen (20) and USC Trojans guard Daniel Utomi (4) keep their eyes on the ball at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.
Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) looks to the basket while USC Trojans forward Onyeka Okongwu (21), Utah forward Mikael Jantunen (20) and USC guard Daniel Utomi (4) keep their eyes on the ball at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. The Utes play at UCLA on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 and at USC on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021 in a key early season Pac-12 road trip.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

LOS ANGELES — Thirteen days off between games seems like a long gap for University of Utah basketball fans, especially after watching their team totally dismantle Idaho 79-41 a week before Christmas in arguably its best performance of the young season.

The Utes (4-1, 1-0 Pac-12) clicked on all cylinders from the opening tip, displaying the depth, balance and defensive acumen that players have said has been evident in practices since they got together for the first time in November.

But for coach Larry Krystkowiak, it doesn’t feel like the team has been idle for nearly two weeks at all. He said in a Zoom meeting with reporters Tuesday that the Utes headed off for their Christmas break a bit early when the Dec. 22 game at Arizona State was postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the program, and have been back at it since Saturday.

“Guys got some individual workouts in, then we have had a good run of practices since the 26th of December, with some (other) stuff mixed in,” he said. “We know a lot of teams have similar circumstances so it is going to be about trying to get ourselves as prepared as possible and bring a little bit of dog to the fight.”

That fighting spirit mentality will be needed this weekend, as the Utes embark on the always-difficult Los Angeles road trip in the Pac-12 that will surely test their resolve to become a better road team than they were last year when they failed to win a conference game away from the Huntsman Center.

Utah hasn’t won a Pac-12 road game since it defeated Washington State on Feb. 23, 2019. Throw in that 82-64 loss to BYU in Provo on Dec. 12, their only road game this season so far, and the Utes have lost 10 straight road games.

They were 3-4 on neutral courts last year.

This week’s trip begins Thursday at UCLA (5-2), which hasn’t played since falling 77-70 to No. 20 Ohio State in Cleveland. Tipoff is at 5 p.m. MST and the game will be televised by Fox Sports 1.

Saturday, Utah moves over to the Galen Center to face USC (5-1) at 2 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Networks. USC blasted Santa Clara 86-63 Tuesday night and will host Colorado Thursday.

Krystkowiak said he’s not worried about the Utes being rusty, pointing to the crisp play they displayed in the season- and conference-opener against Washington on Dec. 3, a 76-62 win.

“We are not going to make any excuses,” he said.

Like Utah in Salt Lake City, UCLA and USC are not allowing any spectators at Pauley Pavilion and the Galen Center, respectively.

Sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen, who missed the Idaho game due to a fractured nose and will be wearing a mask in the immediate future, said the long layoff is nothing, considering the Utes went nine months between games due to the pandemic pushing the start of this season back nearly a month for Utah.

“It was just (about) reloading your batteries during Christmas, and then when we got back practicing everyone was super excited, and we went hard in practice for a couple of days,” he said. “… I feel like the team is back where we left off from the Idaho game.”

Jantunen, who is averaging 25.3 minutes and 8.3 points per game, said the atmosphere at Pauley Pavilion will be night and day different from last year, when the Bruins knocked off the Utes 73-57 with a big late run. Utah cut a big deficit to four, 50-46, with eight minutes remaining, but fizzled down the stretch.

“The fans are not going to affect the game at all,” Jantunen said. “It is going to be the team that plays the hardest and is ready to go from the tip. That’s the kind of the mentality we have to bring on the road, and that is something we may have missed last year.”

Jantunen said the lack of crowds will even the playing field, and predicts a lot more close games on the road this year for the Utes.

“We just gotta stay poised and finish them out,” he said.

Krystkowiak said taking care of the ball against the Bruins will be important, after Utah gave up 20 points on turnovers last year. UCLA leads the all-time series 12-10 and is 8-6 against Utah in Pac-12 games.

Without spectators, “I just think there is going to be a lot more parity,” Krsytkowiak said, referring to the NBA bubble in Orlando last fall where “seven seeds were real competitive with two seeds” who didn’t have their home-court advantage in four out of the seven games.

“For coaches and players, you are used to having a lot of fans, and without that, it probably (takes) a little bit away from the home team,” he said. “On the road, you have to overcome some of the arenas that we play in and some of the loudness and the energy. That’s a fun part of the game for the home team, typically.”