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Analysis: Washington State just what the doctor ordered for snapping Utah Utes’ road losing streak

Five players reach double figures, led by sophomore Branden Carlson’s 14 points and 10 rebounds, as Utes snap 13-game road losing skid with easy win over WSU Cougars

SHARE Analysis: Washington State just what the doctor ordered for snapping Utah Utes’ road losing streak

The Utah bench cheers during the second half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

Young Kwak, Associated Press

The Pac-12 is getting a new commissioner this summer. Utah’s men’s basketball team should petition him or her to let them play Washington State a half-dozen or so times a season.

The struggling Utes found the perfect remedy for their road ills on Thursday night in Pullman, Washington, the red-clad Cougars.

Five Utes reached double figures in scoring and Utah snapped its 13-game road losing skid, and its 12-game Pac-12 road losing skid, with a dominating 71-56 win over WSU at Beasley Coliseum.

“It was a good win for the Utes,” said coach Larry Krystkowiak. “A really good win. A good little bit of feel-good medicine.”

“I don’t think we are going to get fat and sassy. But certainly it energizes our group and validates what it is we are trying to do.” — Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak

It was terribly needed by a program that is probably better than its 6-6 overall record suggests. The Utes ruled from beginning to end in improving to 3-5 in Pac-12 play with a game at last-place Washington looming on Sunday.

It is a win that everybody should have seen coming. After all, the Utes have now defeated Washington State 13 straight times. Their last Pac-12 road win before Thursday night at empty Beasley was over these same Cougars on Feb. 23, 2019.

“I don’t think we are going to get fat and sassy,” said Krystkowiak, realizing Utah’s perennial dominance over WSU and the fact that the Cougars (9-5, 2-5) were struggling as much as the Utes. “But certainly it energizes our group and validates what it is we are trying to do.”

Everything the Utes tried to do worked fabulously well Thursday night.

For starters, they turned back to 7-foot sophomore center Branden Carlson, who started after coming off the bench the last four games. Carlson played arguably his best game as a Ute, leading the team with 14 points on 7 of 12 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds with two blocked shots (it seemed like he had five or six rejections).

“A win is a win,” Carlson said of Utah’s long-awaited road breakthrough. “We kinda got out of that drought.”

Carlson started in the place of Riley Battin, who had been struggling with his shooting. Battin went 5 of 7 for 12 points, while Alfonso Plummer, who also gave up his starting spot five games ago, added 12 on 5 of 9 shooting.

Reliable Timmy Allen chipped in 13 and 6; Starting point guard Rylan Jones had a season-high 10 assists, “ran the club for us, took a charge, made some big plays defensively,” Krystkowiak said.

Most notably, Jones guarded WSU’s leading scorer Isaac Bonton, and held the 18.9-point scorer to four points on 1 of 8 shooting.

“It took an awful lot of energy (to guard Bonton),” Krystkowiak said. “A lot of it was Rylan, not letting the kid catch it, being involved in numerous pick and rolls. … It is what a basketball player does. Maybe if you are not seeing shots go down, you hang your hat on the defensive end.”

Jones said he had a long talk with his coach Monday morning, and decided to play more freely, have more fun, relax a little bit more.

“We are going to keep that focus on our way to Seattle on Sunday,” he said.

Referring to Jones’ recent shooting woes, Krystkowiak said “sometimes the messages and all the outside noise gets a little overwhelming,” even for a player who has succeeded at every level.

“People are hard on our student-athletes, and I don’t think they understand. We are not pros, where they are subject to getting ripped apart because they are not living up to somebody’s expectations,” Krystkowiak said, just warming up. “This is not an easy deal for a lot of kids, especially in light of what is going on COVID-wise and some of the disruptions.”

The coach continued that he is “worn out by some of the negativity that goes on” but has been impressed by his players’ ability “to rise above it, from knuckleheads in the cheap seats, wanting to analyze it.”

If there was dim moment for Utah, it came when starting forward Mikael Jantunen “took a shot to the noggin” during the game and was taken to a local hospital for examination. Jantunen, who has been wearing a protective mask due to having surgery for a fractured nose late last month, had scored 10 points before taking the blow.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed here and waiting to hear what happens (at the hospital),” Krystkowiak said. “He is a warrior, though, and it is a shame that he got smacked. Stay tuned on that one.”

No foul was called on the play.

Utah entered the game having blown three double-digit halftime leads in three of its past four games, so when the Utes jumped ahead 43-26 at the break, nobody was proclaiming the game to be in the bag. 

Utah shot a a sizzling 67% in the first half (18 of 27), but only after cooling off in the final few minutes. 

With four minutes remaining in the half, the Utes were shooting 73 percent.

Coincidentally, Utah also was 18 of 27 in the first half against No. 17 Oregon before blowing a 10-point lead at the break.

But the Utes continued to roll after halftime, and led by as many as 20 points in the second half.

“This group is hungry and mature and they stay with it,” Krystkowiak said. “From my perspective, it is awesome to see them rewarded.”