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Runnin’ Utes insist they aren’t giving up, but questions surfacing after loss to UCLA with No. 19 USC up next

Utah plays host to Trojans on Saturday at the Huntsman Center looking to snap its four-game losing streak and build some momentum for two more home games next week

Utah Utes guard Alfonso Plummer (25) moves with the ball against UCLA’s guard Tyger Campbell (10) during a men’s basketball game against UCLA at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
Utah Utes guard Alfonso Plummer (25) moves with the ball against UCLA’s guard Tyger Campbell (10) during a men’s basketball game against UCLA at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The Utes play host to USC on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, looking to snap their four-game losing skid.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

The Utah men’s basketball team’s first game in the Huntsman Center in three weeks, Thursday night’s 76-61 loss to league-leading UCLA, produced more questions than answers for a beleaguered bunch that just can’t seem to put together a complete game in February.

Are the Utes showing signs that they are close to throwing in the towel, to borrow one of coach Larry Krystkowiak’s oft-used boxing expressions, on the pandemic-plagued 2020-21 season? They have have lost four straight games, including two by 15 points or more.

Or will they rebound nicely against the team the Bruins overtook for first place in the Pac-12 standings, No. 19 USC, on Saturday night and get re-energized for the stretch run? Utah (9-11, 6-10) and USC (19-5, 13-4) tangle at 6 p.m. on ESPN2, with the colorful Bill Walton providing analysis.

And what’s with not getting to the free-throw line at all on their home court in a game that was as physical as most, if not more? It was the first time in program history that Utah has not attempted a free throw in a game.

Was that because Krystkowiak criticized the officiating after Utah’s 67-64 loss at Oregon last Saturday, a fairly mild questioning of a double-dribble call that earned him a public reprimand four days later?

Were the guys who worked the Utah-UCLA game standing up for their fellow zebra-striped buddies?

To be honest, it didn’t appear that way. UCLA only went to the free-throw line four times, making three, in a game that lasted just one hour, 39 minutes. The referees called just 17 fouls — 10 on Utah, seven on UCLA.

They were mostly consistent, which is what is asked for by most coaches and players.

“I guess there’s plenty of time for everybody to get something to eat,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin quipped after the game, which tipped off at 6 p.m. MST. It was the first time a UCLA opponent attempted no free throws since 2005 against Delaware State.

Word is the undersized Hornets didn’t take the ball inside much that November night 15 years ago. Utah did, with limited success — 26 points in the paint — and plenty of failure. Five shots were blocked, and several bunnies were missed. That’s been a recurring problem for a team missing big man Mikael Jantunen the past four games, and there was a time or two when officials “swallowed their whistles,” as they say.

The Utes weren’t pointing any fingers, or buying into any conspiracy theories, but they did not find it amusing, as UCLA’s second-year coach did.

“I don’t know if I have ever coached in a game where we haven’t shot a free throw, so that was a little bit odd,” Krystkowiak said.

In their 72-70 loss at UCLA on Dec. 31, 2020, the Utes attempted 12 free throws, UCLA 14.

“Yeah, I think we can always be more aggressive, try to get to the line, as well I think the refs let us play a bit today. It was a physical game down low. We were allowed to get away with more stuff,” said center Branden Carlson, who led the Utes with 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting.

“We just got to make our shots when we are down there if they are going to let us play — which we like,” Carlson continued. “We like physical. We just gotta finish those plays. But yeah, it does help when you can get to the line.”

Speaking of Jantunen, his status is another question that needs to be answered. Having been in quarantine since returning from the Finnish national team’s win over Switzerland last Friday in a EuroBasket 2022 qualifier, will he play Saturday vs. the Trojans?

“Well, I am hopeful,” Krystkowiak said. “We are still in a little bit of a holding pattern. We have some testing issues and some different stuff we are dealing with. But there is a little bit of optimism that we get him back for the USC game.”

The coach said Jantunen’s absence — Utah has gone 0-4 with their starting four man out — could come with a silver lining.

“This could be a good thing for Mickey,” Krystkowiak said. “He has always been a worker. He doesn’t take too many days off. He was put in a position where he had to take some days off, at least from combat. … So I am pretty confident we can get him back in the lineup and in a good position to help us.”

His size, 6-foot-9, will be needed because USC boasts one of the top big men in the country, 7-footer Evan Mobley. The freshman center is averaging 16.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, although the product of Temecula, California, did not attempt a shot in USC’s 64-46 win over Utah at the Galen Center on Jan. 2.

Mobley was held to three points — all free throws — and five rebounds in 30 minutes; Santa Clara transfer Tahj Eaddy had 18 points, while Drew Peterson added 13 points and 11 rebounds as the Trojans broke from a 32-28 halftime lead and held Utah to 4-of-32 shooting in the second half.

After Thursday’s 80-62 loss at Colorado, USC’s NET ranking fell from 13 to 23.

The Utes’ NET ranking is now 105, but Krystkowiak has far more to worry about than that number, after saying there was “a little bit of give-up in us” against UCLA. He later clarified that troubling statement, saying he didn’t mean his team quit and would never suggest that. It just got discouraged when the Bruins were on a big scoring run, he said.

But the question has to be asked: Will the towel stay in their corner against nationally ranked USC?