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Utah Utes searching for entire-game consistency as rival Colorado comes to town

Aside from a four-minute stretch early in the second half, Utah went toe-to-toe with No. 17 Oregon on Saturday before falling 79-73 at the Huntsman Center

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) dunks during a Pac-12 game against the Oregon Ducks.
Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) dunks during the game against the Oregon Ducks at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When the Utah Utes figure out how to play a complete 40-minute game, they are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-12 this season, coach Larry Krystkowiak said Sunday as his squad turned its attention to Monday’s showdown with rival Colorado at the Huntsman Center.

Utah had No. 17 Oregon on the ropes Saturday night at the Huntsman Center, leading 43-33 at halftime, but struggled the first four minutes of the second half, didn’t make some open shots down the stretch and fell 79-73 in the first game of a four-game homestand.

Tipoff against Colorado is at 4 p.m. and the game will be televised by the Pac-12 Network.

“We managed to take the lead again after we got overtaken in the second half, but that first three or four minutes coming out of the locker room was the story of the game I thought, where things got away from us,” Krystkowiak said.

The coach liked the way the Utes (4-4, 1-3 Pac-12) responded “once we did get punched in the mouth to start the second half,” but the damage was done and Oregon owned the final few minutes to complete its mountain swing with a split, having lost to Colorado on Thursday.

A few shaky moments also kept the Utes from upsetting UCLA on New Year’s Eve when the Bruins eked out a 72-70 win at Pauley Pavilion. Just when the Utes got a couple other problems cleaned up — rebounding and inconsistent shooting — some new ones surfaced: turnovers and the failure to finish.

“So part of closing some games out is some experience, and just clicking a little bit more, making some more plays along the way,” Krystkowiak said. “It is a lot of the little things, and that’s what our team needs to focus on. It is the next play mentality, and we did a really good job of that for 30 minutes, and things got away from us with the turnovers, I thought tonight.”

Krystkowiak switched up his starting lineup in an effort to get better defenders on the floor earlier in the game, and the move paid off as Utah controlled the first half. Riley Battin and Pelle Larsson started in the place of Branden Carlson and Alfonso Plummer, and Larsson had one of his best games as a Ute: 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes.

“Oregon started small. We are starting small. I am not going to get into a whole lot of what we are doing with our lineups. I am not going to make that a point of discussion,” Krystkowiak said. “I will just say that the five guys that are out on the floor got to make some plays.”

The coach said some starting lineup changes “may be based on who we play.”

Star guard Timmy Allen, who surpassed 1,000 points in his career on his birthday and finished with a team-high 23, said it “doesn’t really matter” to him who starts or not.

“Anybody in the starting lineup, I know they are going to be ready to go,” Allen said. “But I think we brought the energy from the jump. I like where our minds are at. We were making shots (in the first half) and we were playing really good D. The guys that came off the bench came in and gave a great effort. I think Carlson) had one of his best games I have seen him play.”

Colorado’s scheduled game on Saturday vs. Oregon State was postponed due to COVID-19 issues at OSU, so the Buffaloes haven’t played since knocking off No. 17 Oregon 79-72 in Boulder on Thursday.

“Colorado will come in here with more rest. Stanford will come in here (Thursday) with more rest. And then we got our hands full with Cal (Saturday) to finish it off,” Krystkowiak said. “We need to get rested up, get hydrated, and get ready to compete against a really good Colorado team on Monday.”

The Buffs (8-3, 2-2 Pac-12) dropped their conference opener 88-74 at Arizona on Dec. 28, then upset USC 72-62 in Los Angeles on Dec. 31 before dropping a heartbreaker 65-62 at UCLA two days later.

“We have seen them enough and know what they do,” Allen said. “They are a great team and they move the ball. They have a couple really good players and they are big inside. So we are going to watch a lot of film (Sunday and Monday), lock into the game plan our coaches are going to give us, and just try to execute to the best of our potential.”

Colorado is used to playing at altitude, “so we have to bring it,” Allen said. “We can’t hang our heads on (the Oregon loss). We’ve got to move on and get on to the next one.”

McKinley Wright is averaging 16.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game for Colorado, while Jeriah Horne is averaging 11.3 points and a team-leading 5.8 boards per game. In Thursday’s win, Wright and Evan Battey recorded double-doubles.

Oregon turned Colorado over 13 times before turning Utah over 18 times.

“It was a quality win over a quality program,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “We rebounded the ball well. We competed. … When you don’t shoot the ball well and you still can figure out a way to win a game against a quality opponent, that says a lot about your team.”