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Analysis: Down two starters, Utah’s lack of depth exposed in 73-66 loss at Stanford

Minutes before tipoff, Utah announced that junior forward Mikael Jantunen had left the team temporarily to join the Finnish National Team in its qualifying game for EuroBasket 2022

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Utah guard Pelle Larsson (3) and center Branden Carlson (35) defend against Stanford forward Lukas Kisunas (32) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, in Stanford, Calif. Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak’s team was shorthanded Saturday night against Stanford with starting point guard Rylan Jones on the bench with a shoulder injury and starting forward Mikael Jantunen departing for a stint with the Finnish National Team.

Scot Tucker, Associated Press

No Rylan Jones, no Mikael Jantunen, and no offensive punch led to no chance for the Utah Utes to upset the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday night at Maples Pavilion. 

Utah doesn’t have a particularly deep bench as it is, and without two starters, it faced an uphill climb to extend its three-game winning streak at a place it rarely prospers.

With Utah shorthanded due to the night’s biggest news — that Jantunen has left the team to play for the Finnish National Team in the EuroBasket Qualifier — that came just 20 minutes before tipoff and Jones unable to play for the second-straight game after sustaining a shoulder injury in practice, Stanford took a relatively easy 73-66 win to keep its shaky NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

“They took us out of our offense more in this game than they did at home. Their defensive game plan was pretty similar, besides the fact that they pressured us more to get us out of our offense. And that caused us to be stagnant.” — Utah forward Timmy Allen

Their modest winning streak snapped and their impressive midseason momentum derailed, the Utes fell to 9-8 overall, 6-7 in conference play. Utah is now 1-7 at Maples since entering the Pac-12 prior to the 2011-12 season.

Having defeated Stanford 79-65 in Salt Lake City on Jan. 14, the Utes were looking for a sweep, but could never find any offensive rhythm after a torrid start.

Utah jumped in front 14-4 as Alfonso Plummer, starting in Jones’ place for the second-straight game, came out firing with eight points in the first few minutes. But that was as good as it got for the Utes.

“They took us out of our offense more in this game than they did at home,” said star forward Timmy Allen, who led the Utes with 18 points but committed five turnovers. “Their defensive game plan was pretty similar, besides the fact that they pressured us more to get us out of our offense. And that caused us to be stagnant.”

As for playing without Jantunen, Krystkowiak said it was a “lengthy process” and the qualifier games being played in the middle of the college season were necessitated by COVID-19 issues.

“This goes back to when we originally recruited Miki,” he said. “It was always going to be a promise made on my part that he could take part in all the (Finnish) national team events. … Any other year, it doesn’t have that impact. There have been a lot of discussions and it kinda came down to the wire with the direction that we went.”

Allen said the Utes took a “next man up mentality” and weren’t fazed by Jantunen’s abrupt departure, which will likely be for four games, based on the Finnish National Team’s schedule. Jones’ status moving forward — the Utes play at Oregon State on Thursday — remains uncertain.

“We gotta control what we can control, and we are focused on the guys who are suiting up for us every night,” Allen said, refusing to allow the loss of two starters to be an excuse.

Riley Battin started in Jantunen’s place and had seven points, but just one rebound, in 27 minutes. The Utes were out-rebounded 34-30 and committed 16 turnovers, succumbing to the Stanford pressure of which Allen spoke a few too many times.

But they did throw a scare into the Cardinal (13-8, 9-6), especially in the last few minutes when they finally loosened up and started hitting some shots.

“I was pleased that we finished the game the way that we did, with some energy and making some plays. We certainly made it interesting,” Krystkowiak said.

Having shot 50% or better in each of their last five games, the Utes struggled to get the ball in the basket this time, finishing at 43% (23 of 54) while Stanford shot 54%.

“The game was kind of a tale of two halves,” Krystkowiak said. “We got off to a great start, had an awful lot of energy. We were defending, made baskets, and then we went through that dry spell at the end of the first half, which was a little bit of a combination of missing some open looks and they put an awful lot of pressure on us. I thought we got sped up.”

Oh, that dry spell.

The Utes went nearly seven minutes without a field goal, as Krystkowiak tried Jaxon Brenchley, Lahat Thioune, Ian Martinez and Jordan Kellier off the bench to give the starters a rest and perhaps provide a spark, without much luck.

Allen took just three shots in the first half, scoring four points on 1 of 3 shooting from the field and 2 of 3 shooting from the free-throw line. Allen and Kellier missed the front end of one-and-one opportunities during Utah’s dry spell.

Utah scored just eight points in the final 13 minutes of the first half and just five in the final 9:40 of the half.

Krystkowiak thought Allen was aggressive enough, and played under control when it became obvious Stanford’s game plan was to limit his touches. 

“I think Timmy played a good floor game,” Krystkowiak said. “They doubled us down in the block and he made some nice passes. There just weren’t as many opportunities for him as in a normal game.”

Martinez played just four minutes in the first half after scoring a career-high 16 in Thursday’s win over Cal. He had a couple thunderous dunks in the second half, but Utah merely kept pace, trading basket for basket most of the final 20 minutes.

Battin’s corner 3-pointer and Plummer’s 3-point play got the Utes within eight at 56-48, but they had three straight empty possessions after that and lost their momentum.

Branden Carlson’s dunk after a pretty assist from Allen cut the Cardinal lead to 68-61 with 58 seconds left. Plummer hit a 3-pointer to cut Stanford’s lead to 70-64 with 32 seconds left, but the Cardinal iced it from the free-throw line.

Spencer Jones led Stanford with 17 points, while Oscar da Silva, a Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate, had 13 before fouling out.

Utah assisted on only nine of 23 field goals, while Stanford had 19 assists.