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Utah shows poise down the stretch this time against USC and holds on for victory

Alfonso Plummer sparks Utes’ win with 18 points off the bench

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 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.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Last month in Los Angeles, the Utah basketball team led USC for nearly the whole game only to lose when the Trojans scored six straight points in the final minute to win by four.

On Sunday afternoon at the Huntsman Center, the Utes jumped out to a big early lead again and an even bigger lead in the second half only to see the Trojans again close the gap. This time, the Utes showed their poise down the stretch, scoring 12 unanswered points in the final three minutes to take a 79-65 victory.

The win snapped a three-game slide as the Utes improved 15-12 on the season and 6-9 in Pac-12 play and into eighth place, just behind Stanford (7-7), who they’ll play Wednesday night on the road.

“Making shots is huge,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, whose team shot 62.5 percent in the second half and 48.5 percent for the game. “We needed a game like this where guys not only moved it, but we made shots when we moved it to the right place. At some point the rim’s going to open up, and it did tonight.”

Leading the way for Utah was Timmy Allen, who has struggled throughout much of Pac-12 play but decided to be more aggressive Sunday, and JC transfer Alfonso Plummer, who had his second straight outstanding game off the bench.

Allen scored a game-high 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Plummer scored 18 points, sinking 5 of 8 from 3-point range. Utah’s big men, center Branden Carlson and reserve forward Mikael Jantunen, both had excellent games, as Carlson had 11 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks, while Jantunen finished with 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and a block.

Krystkowiak had special praise for Plummer, who had 16 points in Thursday’s loss to UCLA and has come on strong in recent games after a slow start to the season.

“I thought Fons has a terrific weekend. He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Krystkowiak said.

When asked why Plummer hadn’t played more earlier — he didn’t even get into six games this season — Krystkowiak said “bad coaching” and explained it’s because his defense and practice performance haven’t been up to par.

“I think one of the big things when games are few and far between, it’s practices where you get a sample size of what guys can do,” he said. “The reality is like some guys, he’s not a great practice player. Although his habits have improved, he’s proven when the popcorn’s popping, he really enjoys the opportunity and goes out there and does his job. It’s part of the process, but better late than never.”

Plummer sparked the Utes in the first half after the Trojans had overcome a 10-point deficit to take a 23-22 lead. He sank a 3-pointer and followed it up less than a minute later with three free throws after getting fouled on a 3-point try, and the Utes went in halftime up 34-28.

In the second half, Plummer’s 3-pointer from the right corner gave the Utes their biggest lead at 45-30. He made another 3 midway through the half when USC had cut the lead to five, and his biggest basket came at the 2:54 mark after the Trojans had again cut the lead to five and Rylan Jones had just left the game with a leg injury. That started the 12-0 run for the Utes that ended when USC finally made a 3-point basket with 13 seconds left.

“Sometimes I’m kind of lazy and I have to get better on defense,” Plummer said of his practice habits. “Right now I’m trying to focus on getting better on both ends, and practice is going to be the key.”

The Trojans were led by 6-foot-9 freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu, who is a projected lottery pick in the NBA draft. He finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds, but like most of the Trojans, struggled from the free throw line, going 2 for 7. As a team, USC was just 6 of 16 from the line.

Two of USC’s top players, senior guard Jonah Matthews and Nick Rakocevic, were both ill and didn’t contribute much. Matthews scored nine points, while Rakocevic played just five minutes and scored two points.

Krystkowiak was aware of their status and said, “Sometimes you catch a little bit of a break.”

Utah ended up winning the rebound battle 41-37 and finished with 19 assists to 11 turnovers, compared to USC’s 7 rebounds to 15 turnovers.

The loss was a blow to USC’s NCAA hopes, as it came into the game as one of the “last four byes” on ESPN’s bracketology. The Trojans are 19-9 and 8-7 in Pac-12 play, but finish with three home games against Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA.

The Utes will play Cal on Saturday afternoon after playing Stanford and finish the season the following Saturday against Colorado.