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Utes flash the potential they’ve been promising in routing Stanford to snap 4-game losing skid

Three days after asking Utah fans to keep believing, junior forward Timmy Allen scores 22 points in a mild upset of the Cardinal

The Utah Utes huddle during a foul in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. The Utes won 79-65.
The Utah Utes huddle during a foul in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. The Utes won 79-65.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah captain Timmy Allen warned everybody this was coming. Stanford must not have been listening.

At least for one game, the Utes proved correct their scoring leader’s assessment from Monday that they were on the brink of turning their season around. They routed Stanford 79-65 at the Huntsman Center on Thursday afternoon to even their overall record to 5-5 and snap a four-game losing skid.

“I think it is a good starting point for us,” Allen said after scoring 22 points and grabbing eight rebounds in a game Utah controlled from start to finish. “Proud of the effort.”

Effort has never been a question for this team, coach Larry Krystkowiak repeatedly said as the Pac-12 losses piled up before the Cardinal rolled into a building they haven’t won in since 2013.

The problem has been execution and the failure to finish, but the Utes (2-4 in the Pac-12 with Cal coming in on Saturday) were masterful at both against a team that is said to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

A few more performances like Thursday’s, and Utah might be back in the conversation for postseason play.

“The happiness and the thrill is for those guys who are across the hall, in that locker room,” Krystkowiak said via Zoom after Utah’s most complete game of the season. “It is a resilient group. Obviously, I don’t need to tell you all the things they have been through and the extra things they are dealing with on a daily basis. … You can bail and wish for something a little easier, or you can come out swinging, and our guys have really stayed locked in. I am super pleased.”

Allen, who asked fans not to “write off” the Utes or “jump ship” after the loss to Colorado on Monday, got plenty of help this time. Alfonso Plummer added 16 points, Mikael Jantunen chipped in 11 and Branden Carlson came off the bench to score 12 points, block four shots and grab four rebounds.

If Carlson was unhappy over losing his starting spot to Riley Battin two games ago, he didn’t show it. The 7-footer from Bingham High has now blocked 20 shots against Stanford in three games.

“Some of those numbers have happened against Stanford, but Branden has been blocking some shots and doing a tremendous job of protecting the rim (for a while), and he is super athletic and long,” Krystkowiak said. “It is just what we needed. … Having a rim protector is really important in light of the game plan we had where we might be a little bit vulnerable at the rim from time to time.”

Along with playing much better in the second half, the Utes didn’t shrink at the free-throw line. Having gone 2 of 11 from the stripe against Colorado, they were 25 of 30 three days later.

Attacking almost every time he touched the ball, Allen went 10 of 12 from the line.

“We got into the bonus early in both halves and from the previous game when we (missed all their free throws) in the second half from the free-throw line, I think it was huge that we came out and get 25 points there,” Krystkowiak said. “So the boys addressed some of the deficient areas.”

Defense has never been a Utah deficiency this season, and it showed up again Thursday against one of the better offensive teams in the league.

The Utes used their trademark strong defense to build a 34-25 halftime lead, holding the Cardinal to 28% shooting in the first 20 minutes. Stanford was 7 of 25 from the field, but stayed reasonably close by making 4 of 9 3-point attempts.

The Cardinal shot a little better in the second half (43.5%), but the damage was done.

“For our guys to step up and set the tone like they have in the first half has been tremendous,” Krystkowiak said. “I think we are playing some really good basketball, and it is wonderful to see them smiling. In sports, the victories are medicine. It is good medicine, and I couldn’t be more happy and proud of our guys for all their work.”

A strong second half will do that. Coaches kept the rah-rah stuff, and the reminders of past second-half letdowns, to a minimum at halftime, Krystkowiak said, avoiding “self-fulfilling prophecies” and instead opting for more warmup time on the court.

The strategy paid off.

Jantunen spurred a 7-0 run with a bucket and a 3-point play, and the Utes withstood hot shooting by Ziaire Williams, who was 4 of 8 from 3-point range and finished with 17 points for Stanford.

Daejon Davis added a season-high 19, but leading scorer Oscar Da Silva, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week, was held to 11.

Da Silva played only 11 minutes and scored just three points in the first half due to foul trouble.

Utah fans know that big halftime leads haven’t guaranteed wins the past two outings, as the Utes lost to Oregon and Colorado despite leading both NCAA Tournament teams by 10 points at the break.

Thursday, there was no second-half letdown, however.

Point guard Rylan Jones, who went scoreless three days ago, hit a 3-pointer to open the second half, Utah went on a 10-3 run the first four minutes, and that was that. Utah led by as many as 18 points, and Stanford didn’t get closer than nine the rest of the way.

“Like I said, I still believe,” Allen said. “I think we got something good going. We just have to get all the pieces in order. … You can believe or not, but we are just going to keep plugging along. That’s a good team we just beat. Like the previous few games, we have been there before. We were just able to finish it.”

Allen, who mildly complained about not getting to the line enough after Monday’s loss to Colorado, went to the line eight times in the first half alone and had 15 points before the break.

Stanford missed eight straight shots during one stretch in the first half, and went more than five minutes without scoring before Williams hit back-to-back 3-pointers.

Utah went on a 9-0 run between the four-minute mark and the one-minute mark to get the advantage heading into halftime, an edge with which the Utes were familiar.

This time they didn’t give it up.