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Analysis: Atrocious second-half shooting dooms Utes in another Pac-12 road loss

Utah made just 4 of 30 shots in the second half — that’s 13.3% — and fell 64-46 to USC at the empty Galen Center on Saturday, pushing its conference road losing streak to 12 games.

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Utah’s Rylan Jones, center, passes the ball as he is defended by Southern California’s Isaiah White, right, and Chevez Goodwin during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Any thoughtful analysis of Utah’s frustrating 64-46 loss to tall-as-timber USC on Saturday afternoon at empty Galen Center has to begin and end with a couple simple sentences.

The Trojans made shots.

The Utes missed shots.

It was that simple.

In the second half, when the close, physical, grinding game got away from them, the Utes made just 4 of their 30 shot attempts. Yes, you read that correctly: 4 of 30. That’s 13.3%.

“I thought our defense was really good. I don’t know if I have ever been involved in a game where the score doesn’t indicate what type of game it was,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said, which is like saying Southern California would be a great place to live if it weren’t for the traffic. 

That’s a fact of life here — when a raging pandemic isn’t keeping everybody in their homes — but the good news for the Utes (4-3, 1-2 Pac-12) is the woeful shooting is something they can fix, Krystkowiak believes.

“I thought our defense was really good. I don’t know if I have ever been involved in a game where the score doesn’t indicate what type of game it was.” — Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak

They had better, because their own defense is not good enough to overcome the kind of off night they had on the other end of the floor against this kind of competition.

Despite getting only five points from the famed Mobley brothers — 7-foot freshman Evan and 6-10 sophomore Isaiah — USC (6-2, 1-1) had plenty of offensive firepower to run away from the Utes at the end. 

Tahj Eaddy scored 18 points and three role players reached double figures as the Trojans shot 53% from the field, 32% from 3-point range. Utah’s defense forced 15 turnovers and scored 15 points off those takeaways, but that’s just a smokescreen.

Utah’s offense was missing in action.

Scoring leaders Timmy Allen (2 of 14) and Alfonso Plummer (3 of 11) struggled to find any offensive rhythm, and Krystkowiak had to take Plummer out of the game early for a defensive lapse and an ill-advised shot, or two, it seemed.

The Utes finished making just 17 of 61 shots (28%) and saw their Pac-12 road losing streak move to 12 games dating back to February of 2019.

“We don’t expect one person to carry the load,” Krystkowiak said. “I would love to have a team that has five guys in double figures. And we have got plenty of opportunities for guys to score points. I am comfortable that that is going to take care of itself.”

How?

Perhaps with a little more play from the freshmen, Ian Martinez and Pelle Larsson. Martinez had his best game as a Ute, springing off the bench to score a team-high 10 points on 3 of 7 shooting. He was aggressive in the second half when other Utes lost interest in driving into the Mobley brothers, 6-9 Chevez Goodwin, 6-8 Drew Peterson and 6-7 Isaiah White when outside shots weren’t falling.

Larsson added five points and four assists off the bench, while also making some key steals in the first half when Utah clawed back into the game after a horrible start.

“Ian continues to play with a lot of energy and brings us athleticism and size that we certainly need,” Krystkowiak said. “He is doing nothing in my opinion but getting better week by week.”

The coach was right about the final score being a bit misleading. The Utes trailed just 44-40 with nine minutes, 22 seconds remaining when Jones hit a pair of free throws.

Then they missed their next eight shots, some of them bunnies at the rim — altered by what the coach called “the tallest team in the country” — and some of them fairly open 3-pointers.

“Let’s not forget that USC is top 10 in the country in defensive field goal percentage, so shots aren’t easy to come by,” Krystkowiak said. “But when you get them, you got to make them, certainly more of them. We missed two layups in a one-possession game. Those make a difference. Back-to-back missed layups.”

A disputed goal-tending call on Branden Carlson — who wasn’t given a similar call just before halftime — led to an 11-1 USC run and the Trojans rolled out to a 55-41 lead before Martinez ended Utah’s scoring drought.

The damage was done. Martinez’s 2-pointer was Utah’s only field goal in the final 11 minutes of the game.

“Our guys are buying into some things defensively and our offense is behind our defense right now,” Krystkowiak said. “So that is going to be a challenge for us. I look forward to jumping into it this week.”

That defensive prowess was never more apparent than midway through the first half, when Utah used deflections, steals and fast-break dunks and layups to get back into the game after falling behind 20-4 early.

“The lid was on the basket for us at the start,” Krystkowiak said.

Then the Utes pried it off momentarily. They went on a 9-0 run, turned it into a 17-2 run, and took their first lead, 27-26, on an Allen layup with 3:16 remaining in the half. It was one of their best five-minute runs of the season — sparked by defense.

Utah had seven steals and 13 points off turnovers in the first half, getting into the passing lanes and disrupting USC’s half-court sets.

Evan Mobley, one of the most highly recruited high school players in the country last year, did not attempt a shot and finished with just three points, on made free throws. He was averaging 16.7 points entering the game.

However, after taking the one-point lead, Utah went the final three-plus minutes of the first half without making a field goal and the Trojans took a 32-28 lead at the break. That was just a precursor of what was to come; frosty shooting from the visitors.

Just before halftime, Carlson hit the floor hard trying to grab a rebound and walked off the floor gingerly.

“He got the wind knocked out of him, but he convinced me and our trainer that he was fine” and started the second half, Krystkowiak said.

Mikael Jantunen had eight points in the first 20 minutes to lead the Utes, then was 0-for-4 in the second half.

He wasn’t alone.

“We came out here and played two really good defensive teams, UCLA and USC,” Krystkowiak said. “Let’s not bury our heads in the sand because we had a hard time scoring. Those are two elite defensive and rebounding and physical-type teams.

“And look, there are no consolation prizes, but in my mind we are in a one-possession game with UCLA and for all purposes in my mind, the same thing goes here against USC,” Krystkowiak continued. “We were real competitive on the road and we will have to clean it up this week. Like I said before, I am looking very much forward.”

The Utes host Oregon State on Wednesday and Oregon on Sunday before hosting the Bay Area schools the following week at the Huntsman Center.