The Runnin’ Utes probably could have used sophomore point guard Rylan Jones late in Thursday’s 76-75 win over Cal after they committed two turnovers and missed three of their last four free-throw attempts in the final minute to give the Bears a chance to steal a game they had no business being in with a few seconds left.
Having escaped what would have been an epic disaster when Matt Bradley’s last-second 3-point attempt and Andre Kelly’s free throw went in and out, Utah turns its attention to Saturday’s game at Stanford (8 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) not knowing if Jones will play against the Cardinal (12-8, 8-6).
Jones made the trip to the Bay Area, but was on the bench wearing a sling for a shoulder injury sustained in practice a few days before the Utes left Salt Lake City.
Coach Larry Krystkowiak said he isn’t sure whether Jones will play at Maples Pavilion, and noted fans are “reading too much into it” if they think Jones’ presence on the trip is an indication that the injury isn’t serious and he is day-to-day.
“This is something that is on Ry,” Krystkowiak said. “He has got to see how he is feeling. I think it is important team-wise as you are closing in on this marathon of a season to be together.”
Krystkowiak said one of the reasons Jones is on the trip is because he can get good treatment from Utah director of athletic training Trevor Jameson, who is also with the Utes.
“I am not surprised by anything after what (Jones) went through last year and how hard he played through some injuries, (so) if he comes to me tomorrow morning and he says he thinks he can give it a go, assuming that Trevor is on board with that, that would be nothing I would argue with,” Krystkowiak said. “We are not overly optimistic, nor are we assuming he won’t play. It is just kinda up to him and how he feels, how he responds.”
Alfonso Plummer started in Jones’ place against Cal, but it was the heady ball-handling of Timmy Allen, Pelle Larsson and Ian Martinez in the second half that kept the Utes in control — until those last few crazy seconds. Utah had committed only seven turnovers the first 39 minutes.
“I thought that was a real positive,” Krystkowiak said. “You go on the road against a team that had lost five games in a row and you knew you were walking into a hornet’s nest. … It would have been nice to have about 7 or 8 (turnovers), but I don’t think we are ever going to pitch a no-hitter. Overall, we did a pretty good job of taking care of it. I was really proud of the guys for stepping up, no doubt.”
The Utes (9-7, 6-6 Pac-12) are playing their best basketball of the season. They have won three straight games and four of their last five and are in seventh place in the league standings.
The goal now is to finish among the top five and get a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
Another win over Stanford — Utah manhandled the Cardinal 79-65 at the Huntsman Center on Jan. 14 — would put them within striking distance of doing that. Stanford, which was routed 69-51 by Colorado Thursday night, opened as a 3-point favorite.
The Cardinal are on the NCAA Tournament bubble and could be a desperate, angry team.
“I think that’s maybe a little bit overcooked. I am not sure,” Krystkowiak said. “In my mind, we are playing for an edge as well, and trying to sort some things out. … I think (Stanford coach Jerod Haase) and the players at Stanford are cut so that they don’t get too caught up in it, to be honest.”
The Utes stayed in Berkeley on Thursday night after the win, then rode a bus over to Stanford Friday morning after breakfast and a film session. They were tested for COVID-19 on Stanford’s campus, then practiced at Maples and checked into a hotel in the Palo Alto area Friday afternoon.
“So we did switch hotels midstream,” Krystkowiak said. “You are a traffic accident or something away from (being late to a game), so trying to split the difference and stay in one hotel (isn’t wise). So we do get closer to campus on each occasion.”
The Utes will return home Sunday, then make their Oregon road swing next week, playing at Oregon State on Thursday and Oregon on Saturday.
Utah (9-7, 6-6) at Stanford (12-8, 8-6)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MST
Maples Pavilion, Stanford, California
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: 700 AM