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Analysis: Upset-minded Utes play significantly better but turn the ball over too much in loss to No. 17 Oregon

Junior guard Timmy Allen becomes the 40th Ute to score more than 1,000 points in his career, but Utah blows a 10-point halftime lead

Oregon Ducks forward Chandler Lawson (13) grabs the ball as Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) hits the boards during the game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Oregon Ducks forward Chandler Lawson (13) grabs the ball as Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) hits the boards during the game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Their shooting improved — it had to after last weekend’s rough performance at USC — and so did their rebounding and interior scoring.

Yet the Utah Utes found another way to lose to the Oregon Ducks on Saturday night at the Huntsman Center.

In short, the culprit was turnovers, as No. 17 Oregon turned 18 Utah giveaways into 25 points and ran out of Salt Lake City with a 79-73 win to improve to 10-2 and rebound from Thursday’s loss at Colorado.

The Utes fell to 4-4 overall, 1-3 in Pac-12 play after losing their third straight game.

The loss was as excruciating to take as last week’s two-point setback at UCLA, because the Utes had a 10-point lead at halftime and were seemingly in control. Then Oregon turned up the defensive pressure, and Utah wilted for about five minutes.

Ball game.

“Super proud of the effort. Super proud of the effort,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, his voice getting louder with each proclamation. “Something reared its head tonight that hadn’t reared its head all season, and that was turnovers. Our defense was unbelievable. … There is an NBA guy or two on that other roster.”

That became apparent down the stretch, as Oregon took control in the final five minutes, much as the Ducks always seem to do against the Utes. Krystkowiak fell to 2-18 against Oregon coach Dana Altman.

“It was a little bit like a boxing match when you get into the later rounds,” Krystkowiak said.

If so, the Ducks did their body work in the first four minutes of the second half, then threw the knockout blow in the last three.

“Part of closing games out is experience and just clicking a little bit more,” Krystkowiak said.

Taking care of the ball is also big.

Playing their best half of the season to date, the Utes took a 43-33 lead at intermission, then turned the ball over on three straight possessions to open the second half and the Ducks scratched back into the game.

Oregon opened the second half on a 17-5 run to take a 50-48 advantage, and the lead changed hands six times from there before the Utes blinked first.

“It was the 25 points they scored on our turnovers, and a lot of that started in that stretch in the second half,” Krystkowiak said. “They really picked up the pressure. There was a lot of physical play, a lot of hand checking that was not called, and some games are like that, I guess. But we got sped up, turned the ball over, and points (teams) get off our turnovers are often times indefensible.”

Almost every other statistic favored the Utes. They shot 56% to Oregon’s 45% (the Ducks did make four more 3-pointers) and won the rebounding battle 36-27.

They scored 40 points in the paint to Oregon’s 28. They had 20 assists (13 in the first half, when they were sharing the ball as well as they have all season) and held Oregon to 15 assists.

But Oregon had just seven turnovers and got 25 points from senior guard Chris Duarte on a night when its leading scorer, Eugene Omoruyi, went 0 for 7 from the field and did not score.

“We haven’t seen our best offense yet, and we continue to hang our hat on playing defense,” Krystkowiak said. “That’s going to keep us in games. I trust the rim is going to open up and we are going to score at a more efficient clip. It is a fun group to coach when we are as dialed in as we were defensively.”

If ignoring a loss when the Utes had an upset within their grasp is possible, there were plenty of positives as Utah played 10 times better than in the second half of its last outing.

Junior forward Timmy Allen led the Utes with 23 points, five rebounds and three assists on his birthday and reached a significant milestone in his career. Allen became the 40th Ute to score 1,000 career points and the 21st to do it as a junior.

He got his 1,000th point in the first half when Rylan Jones made a pretty assist and the Utes were rolling.

“It is cool,” Allen said of the achievement. “I put my heart into this stuff, man, so it is good to see some hard work paying off. It is an accomplishment, but I have a lot more to do in my time here.”

Krystkowiak said Allen kept the Utes in the game and is becoming “the catalyst” for Utah’s offense and its “head of the snake.”

“It is fantastic,” he said. “There are 40-something people in Utah basketball (history) that have scored 1,000 points, and this program has been around for a long time. It is awesome.”

Even Altman was impressed.

“He killed us in the first half. We did a poor job of guarding him. Whether we were in man or zone, it didn’t matter. He got what he wanted,” Altman said.

Sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen scored a career-high 20 points on 8 of 14 shooting (he was 8 of 10 at one juncture) and held his own inside while also hitting a 3-pointer.

It was the first time two Utes have scored 20-plus points in a game since last March at Colorado when Both Gach had 28 and Alfonso Plummer had 21.

Speaking of Plummer, he came off the bench for the first time this season, a move Krystkowiak said he made to get more size on the floor early, but he had just four points on 2 of 5 shooting.

As he hinted he might do earlier in the week, Krystkowiak switched up his starting lineup significantly, as freshman guard Pelle Larsson got his first career start and Riley Battin started at the five instead of sophomore Branden Carlson.

“It is a little bit more of a defensive mindset,” Krystkowiak said. “The unit that started tonight is our best defensive unit.”

The move paid off early, as Larsson hit a couple 3-pointers to stake the Utes to a 12-7 lead at the first media timeout. The Utes moved the ball well early and assisted on their first four baskets.

Utah scored on eight straight possessions, then beautifully ran a play after a timeout with 6.8 seconds remaining that resulted in a Jantunen layup to give the Utes a 43-33 lead at the break. Plummer showed great maturity on the play, dishing to Jantunen for the easy bucket rather than pull up for a rushed 3-pointer.

The Utes made their final 10 shots in the first half, and their first in the second half. They would obviously love to have this first five minutes of the second half back.

“They just took us out of rhythm a little bit,” Allen said.

Having struggled to make shots from anywhere on the floor in last week’s 64-46 loss at USC, the Utes were just the opposite in the first half Saturday. They shot 67% from the field and 57% from 3-point range before halftime.

They cooled off a bit, but that’s not why they lost.

“We missed a couple layups at the end, missed a couple open 3-pointers, and as we know that is what it comes down to, making shots at the end,” Krystkowiak said.

And avoiding turnovers.