If this pandemic-altered college basketball season has taught us anything, it is that nothing comes easy for the enigmatic Runnin’ Utes, even games against the Pac-12’s worst teams.

Take Thursday’s game at lowly Cal, for instance.

The Utes almost frittered away another road game with some inexplicable brain freezes in the final minute after leading by seven points, but held on to defeat the Bears 76-75 Thursday afternoon at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, California, to take their third-straight win.

“Yessir, that’s right,” coach Larry Krystkowiak exclaimed when reminded that a win is a win, no matter how ugly the final seconds were.

“We were really fortunate. You know, it wasn’t a typical road celebration in the locker room, but as I shared with our guys, there are a lot of lessons to be learned in life, and it is a little different when we can go back to the hotel in Berkeley tonight and still celebrate a win.” — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak

And for the Utes, they were really, really ugly. Comical, almost. But they could afford to laugh, uneasily perhaps, after Cal’s Andre Kelly ended one of the craziest end-of-game stretches imaginable by making only one of two free throws with .7 seconds left, when a couple makes would have forced overtime.

“We were really fortunate,” Krystkowiak said. “You know, it wasn’t a typical road celebration in the locker room, but as I shared with our guys, there are a lot of lessons to be learned in life, and it is a little different when we can go back to the hotel in Berkeley tonight and still celebrate a win.”

Instead of languish over what could have been a disaster.

Utah, which improved to 9-7 overall, 6-6 in the Pac-12, was incredibly clutch from the free-throw line from the four-minute mark to the one-minute mark to take a 75-68 lead. Those were the positives.

Then everything fell apart for the visitors.

On their last four possessions, the Utes missed three of four free throws and turned the ball over twice. It was eerily similar to the meltdown at then-last place Washington last month that cost the Utes a much-needed breakthrough in Seattle. 

Utah’s most critical mistake came after Cal’s Matt Bradley made a layup with 6.8 seconds left to cut the deficit to two. The Utes threw the ball away, and it somehow ended up in Cal’s best player’s hands again. His 3-point attempt that in all likelihood would have won the game rimmed out. It was that close to being an absolute dagger to the Utes’ resurgence.

Kelly grabbed the rebound and was fouled, but after a timeout he missed the first free throw, and Utah escaped.

“Road wins are hard to come by, but it was certainly a perfect storm to what could have been a disaster,” Krystkowiak said. “So fortunately (Utah escaped) and I will make improvements, our individuals that were part of that finish will make improvements, and we are going to move on and start focusing on Stanford.”

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The final shooting stats were almost identical: Utah shot 51%, while Cal (7-15, 2-13) shot 52%. Utah made eight straight free throws before the last-minute misfires by Timmy Allen (18 points, four rebounds), which is what Krystkowiak wanted to focus on postgame, and was 21 of 27 from the line while Cal was just 11 of 13.

“It is not the same kind of vibe you want, but you can have learning lessons in life (when endings aren’t) disastrous,” Krystkowiak said. “I think we can make a positive out of it.”

As for the rather muted locker room celebration, big man Branden Carlson (13 points) said that was because “it was closer than it should have been” but also because the Utes were waiting for freshman Ian Martinez to finish his postgame television interview as the hero of the game.

“There are always things we can learn and take away from that,” Carlson said. “… After Ian got in (the locker room), it got more lively.”

Take away the first few minutes of the second half, and the last minute, and this was a game the Utes dominated, showing once again that when they are dialed in, they are as good as any team in the so-so Pac-12 this year.

They also showed they can play without starting point guard Rylan Jones — except in the last minute when Jones’ ballhandling and steady decision-making were obviously needed. Jones watched the game from the sidelines, his arm in a sling, and Pac-12 Network reported he sustained a shoulder injury in practice a few days ago.

Krystkowiak declined to discuss the injury after the game.

Alfonso Plummer started for the first time in nine games in Jones’ absence and scored all nine of his points in the first half, on three 3-pointers. 

Krystkowiak turned to Martinez to fill the void, and the freshman delivered his best game as a Ute, scoring a career-high 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field, 5-of-5 from the charity stripe.

“I thought Ian stepped up big time,” Krystkowiak said, noting that Martinez made a crucial block on defense late in the game as well.

Bradley, who prepped at Wasatch Academy, led the Bears with 20, while Grant Anticevich added 18 and Kelly 17. Bradley didn’t play in Salt Lake last month when the Bears overcame a 36-24 halftime deficit and upset the Utes at the Huntsman Center, a loss that marked the low point of the season for the Utes.

Flashbacks to that meltdown when Utah gave up 50 second-half points surfaced Thursday after the Utes jumped out to a 42-32 lead at the break, then watched as the Bears scored the first seven points of the second half.

Cal chipped away and took a 57-55 lead with 8:48 remaining when Bradley made a 3-point play, but Utah tightened its defense and Carlson made some big defensive plays.

That was noteworthy, because Carlson went to the bench with his third foul with about 18 minutes remaining, returned with about 14 minutes remaining, and didn’t commit a foul the rest of the way. 

“We called some interior plays for Branden, and we knew Cal was going to play straight up, and I thought he had a lot of poise and maturity and made some big-time baskets for us at critical times in the game,” Krystkowiak said. “I think he made some advancements in his game, and it was good. … So, big-time game.”

Utah shot 58% in the first half, making 15 of 26 shots, including 5 of 9 3-point attempts. Meanwhile, Utah’s defense was on point, evidenced when Pelle Larsson came up with a steal and fast break layup to thwart a Cal surge after Anticevich made back-to-back triples.

Suddenly, Utah is one of the hottest teams in the conference, heading into Saturday’s 8 p.m. MST game at Stanford (12-8, 8-6). The Cardinal lost to Colorado 69-51 on Thursday.