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Analysis: Reports of Runnin’ Utes’ resurgence greatly exaggerated, embarrassing loss to lowly Cal shows

For the third time in four games, Utah blows a double-digit halftime lead and falls at home, this time 72-63 to California in one of the most devastating setbacks in recent memory for coach Larry Krystkowiak’s team

California Golden Bears guard Makale Foreman (10) and guard Joel Brown (1) celebrate after beating the Utah Utes at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021.
California Golden Bears guard Makale Foreman (10) and guard Joel Brown (1) celebrate after beating the Utah Utes at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

First, a quick apology to all those legitimate NCAA Tournament teams for suggesting in this space two days ago that the University of Utah men’s basketball team was on the cusp of turning its season around and not that far away from vying for postseason play.

Clearly, it wasn’t.

That was made evident Saturday night at the Huntsman Center, as Utah allowed lowly California to overcome a 12-point halftime deficit that should have been 20, watched as the offensively challenged Bears scored 50 second-half points, and trudged off the court with perhaps their most devastating loss in years.

Final score: California 72, Utah 63.

“We can’t lose like that, especially at home,” said the only Ute who seemed to care, judging by the way he competed when the 34-22 halftime advantage slipped away in as poor of a half as Utah has played this season, Timmy Allen. “We just gotta be better.”

So do the Utah coaches.

When a team blows its third double-digit halftime lead in four games, some of the blame has to go to the guys calling the plays, setting the defenses, and responsible for making adjustments or even calling timeouts at the proper times to stem the tide.

Case in point: Cal scored the first seven points of the second half, then got a 3-pointer and three free throws from Ryan Betley to crawl back into a game it had no business being in.

Only a media timeout slowed the momentum.

After the timeout, the Utes got a 3-point attempt by Riley Battin that was blocked, a turnover from Mikael Jantunen, and a missed 3-pointer by Pelle Larsson. Suddenly, it was a ball game, Cal had forgotten it was routed 89-60 by Colorado two days ago and its confidence was surging.

More mystifying for the Utes was that what would become a 14-2 Bears run still didn’t shake them out of their doldrums.

It started getting away from them when Grant Anticevich, who had made 9 of 29 3-point attempts prior to the upset, started shooting like former Golden Bear Jason Kidd. Back-to-back triples by Anticevich gave Cal a 54-46 lead with just under 10 minutes remaining, and Utah never got closer than six.

“It was kind of a perfect storm for us not to finish the ball game. So I am really disappointed. I feel bad for the guys,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.

Friday, the coach was saying the Utes (now 5-6, 2-5 in Pac-12 play) were playing good basketball and looking forward to climbing back into the conference race. What a difference a day makes.

Now they are closer to the bottom than the top. Through 11 games, this much is apparent: Nothing comes easy for these guys.

“If we can beat Stanford, we can beat anybody,” Allen said. “If we can lose to Cal, we can lose to anybody.”

That list of potential losses probably even now includes cellar-dwelling Washington, which hosts the Utes next Sunday after Utah plays at Washington State on Thursday. A day ago, those looked like good opportunities for the Utes to break their lengthy conference road games losing skid that dates back to the 2018-19 season.

Not now.

What happened?

Krystkowiak pointed to the usual culprits: missed shots, turnovers and poor defensive rebounding. He could have tossed in soft defense in the second half.

He spoke sharply when it was suggested the Utes took a step back.

“We are not taking steps. That’s the nature of the season,” he said. “Each game has a different story, so a loss is definitely not a step forward. I think the key for our team is to learn what we can from this experience. We got to grow in a lot of different areas.

“I am fine with taking a step back because I know we are not going to win every game, as long as we take a couple steps forward this week. That’s the key to me.”

Ironically, the Utes were looking like the best defensive team in the Pac-12, or one of them, in the first half when they held the Bears, missing their best player and leading scorer, Matt Bradley, who has missed six of Cal’s last eight games and each of the past four with an ankle injury, to 33% shooting.

Cal missed 15 of its first 18 shots and had only eight field goals — and six turnovers — in the first half.

Credit coach Mark Fox for pushing all the right buttons in the second half. It was like a completely different team emerged from Cal’s locker room at halftime.

“They got a little mojo going, had some guys that stepped up and made some plays,” Krystkowiak said. “And I thought we got them in the bonus much too fast.”

Krystkowiak lamented Utah’s 17 turnovers, seven of which were committed by Allen, who acknowledged that’s a part of his game he needs to work on.

Otherwise, Allen was Utah’s lone bright spot. He went 8 of 15 from the field, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range after entering the game with only four triples all season. He finished with 26, but the only other Ute in double figures was Larsson, with 12.

Krystkowiak played 10 guys in the first half, adding Jaxon Brenchley and Lahat Thioune to the rotation that is usually only 7-8 guys deep. The 6-foot-10 Thioune hit a 10-footer in the paint, showing a nice touch with a hand in his face.

At that point, everything was going well for the Utes, and it seemed like they were on their way to another double-digit win over a Bay Area visitor.

Instead, Cal now leads the all-time series 18-17 after winning in Salt Lake City for the first time since 2014.

Krystkowiak reminded reporters that Utah was playing its fourth game in eight days.

“I am not here to make excuses, but … something that is a little bit troubling, and I am trying to protect our team, not make an excuse, but we just played four games in a week. That doesn’t happen very often in college basketball,” the coach said. “And if there were a few shots that came up short, or maybe we didn’t quite have it, I would like to maybe chalk it up to having a helluva challenge ahead of us.”