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Analysis: Improbable come-from-behind win over Colorado feels like it could turn Utes’ disappointing season around

Senior guard Alfonso Plummer scores all 23 of his points in the second half and Utah rallies from a 19-point deficit to upset the shell-shocked Buffaloes on their home court

Utah guard Alfonso Plummer, center, is hugged by guards Rylan Jones, left, and Jordan Kellier as time runs out in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, in Boulder, Colo. Utah won 77-74.
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Six days after University of Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak said “bad coaching” played a part in one of the most devastating losses in his 10-year tenure, a brilliant move — even if it wasn’t entirely planned — might have just helped the Utes turn the corner in a season that was heading nowhere until Saturday in Boulder, Colorado, of all places.

Of course, some absolutely brilliant shot-making by senior guard Alfonso Plummer in the second half also played a key role.

When the dust had settled at empty CU Events Center, Plummer had scored all of his game-high 23 points in the contest’s final 14 minutes and Utah had fought back from a 19-point deficit with just over eight minutes remaining to take an improbable 77-74 win over the Pac-12’s best NET ranking team.

“What a huge win,” Krystkowiak said.

As needed as any win in recent Utah basketball history. And as improbable.

It was Utah’s biggest come-from-behind win since it trailed UCLA by 22 points at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 9, 2019 and rallied to win 93-92 when Parker Van Dyke hit the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.

This time, another senior was clearly the star, as Plummer unleashed a shooting display not seen from him since, well, the Pac-12 Tournament last March when he hit 11 3-pointers en route to 35 points in a first-round loss to Oregon State.

“I was just feeling it,” Plummer said. “I just came out ready. Didn’t put my head down. I was just ready to help my team. I didn’t quit.”

No one did.

Junior forward Riley Battin scored all nine of his points in the second half as well, while Timmy Allen added 17 points and 10 rebounds. The Utes avenged a 65-58 loss to the Buffs back on Jan. 11 in Salt Lake City when they were a miserable 2 of 11 from the free-throw line.

Colorado was 18 of 24 from the stripe in that game, but Saturday afternoon in Boulder the tables were turned. Utah got 19 free throws (making 16), while CU got just six (making five).

Oddly enough, a pair of CU freebies, made by stud senior point guard McKinley Wright IV, marked the turning point in the game.

Wright got the free throws with 8 minutes, 46 seconds remaining to give CU a 65-46 lead because Krystkowiak picked up a technical foul for too vehemently protesting a questionable 10-second violation on the Utes.

Did the veteran coach get T’d up to light a fire under his team?

He said he didn’t do it purposefully, but it served a purpose nevertheless. Utah went on a 21-2 run — sparked by Plummer, Battin and Mikael Jantunen (nine points, six rebounds) — to take a 72-69 lead with 2:35 remaining.

“I lost my cookies a little bit on that one,” Krystkowiak said of the technical.

He might have saved the Utes’ season. Utah improved to 7-7 overall, 4-6 in Pac-12 play, and is suddenly looking capable of putting together a nice little winning streak. With Tuesday’s rescheduled game at Arizona State having been postponed again, the Utes can get back to the Huntsman Center and await beatable Arizona’s visit on Thursday. After that, they have ASU at home on Super Bowl Sunday, followed by a trip to California on Feb. 11.

Prediction: On Valentine’s Day, Utah will be 7-6 in league play.

“It was a really big win, to be honest,” Plummer said when asked what the victory can do for the Utes’ flailing season. “Colorado is one of the best teams in the Pac-12. They are always talking about this is a team that is going to the tournament, a potential team to go into the tournament. It is a really good win for us.”

As for the technical foul that could go down as the best in Krystkowiak’s long coaching career, he said there was an over-and-back call on Colorado in the second half that an official missed, so he exploded when the same official said Utah didn’t get the ball over the timeline quickly enough a bit later.

“Whether it was 21 seconds or 20 seconds left on the shot clock, I did not feel like that call had to be made,” he said, “because we were on the move and it was certainly a bang-bang call.”

Colorado made just two field goals on its next 12 possessions as Utah’s defense tightened, and the Buffs foundered just like Utah did when it blew a 10-point halftime lead a few weeks ago.

“You are at the point of a game that whatever inspiration you can get (you take),” Krystkowiak said of the technical that spurred on the Utes. “If there is one guy that gets 10 percent more inspiration because of a technical foul, then so be it, but I didn’t go out with the intent to do that.”

Krystkowiak said assistant coach Tommy Connor reined him in, or “that’s where we are probably looking at a different story here.”

Instead, the story is that the Utes picked up their best win of the season, against a team with a NET ranking of 17 that had been playing the best basketball in the league.

After CU’s Wright hit a top-of-the-key 3-pointer over Battin to knot the score at 72 with a minute remaining, Plummer simply took over. He made a baseline drive for a bucket, then hit a fadeaway 12-footer after a Buffs bucket. After Allen hit a free throw to give Utah a 3-point lead, Pelle Larsson blocked Wright’s 3-point attempt with a second remaining and the Utes celebrated their first win in Boulder since 2017.

A win that just might turn their season around.