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Analysis: Enigmatic Runnin’ Utes ignore the critics, knock off No. 19 USC to again flash their potential

Utah snaps its four-game losing skid by downing the Trojans 71-61, its first win over a ranked opponent since knocking off No. 6 Kentucky in Las Vegas in 2019

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Utah Utes guard Ian Martinez (2) glides to the basket for a monster jam over USC Trojans forward Evan Mobley (4) during a game at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

By the time this unprecedented and pandemic-altered college basketball season is over, scribes are going to run out of ways to describe these wild and crazy Runnin’ Utes.

Enigmatic. Up-and-down. Mercurial. Mysterious. Erratic. Fickle. They’ve all been used.

At no time has the Utes’ unpredictable nature been on better display, however, than Saturday night at the Huntsman Center against the No. 19-ranked USC Trojans, who were leading the Pac-12 Conference after destroying Oregon last Monday and boast the probable conference player of the year, 7-footer Evan Mobley.

“We just stick to the script and keep plugging along and don’t worry about what you all say.” — Utah forward Timmy Allen after the Utes upset No. 19 USC 71-61 at the Huntsman Center

Finally at full strength after nearly a month playing without a couple starters, Utah pulled off is best win of the season, arguably, taking a 71-61 win over Trojans to leave everybody scratching their heads.

Again.

Alfonso Plummer scored 19 points, Timmy Allen added 15 and the Utes came up with nine 3-pointers on just 15 attempts from beyond the arc to stun another NCAA Tournament-bound team. The win was as impressive as victories over Arizona, Colorado and Stanford. But it made those losses to Washington, California and Oregon State even more puzzling.

“We just stick to the script and keep plugging along and don’t worry about what you all say,” Allen said, after emerging from a jubilant locker room.

Whatever that script is, the writer deserves kudos to creativity. Are there more plot twists to come?

“They key for us right now is to get clicking along on more cylinders,” said coach Larry Krystkowiak, who, two nights ago was questioning his team’s effort and suggesting they might have given up a little bit in the loss to UCLA.

Another key is to avoid letdowns — which is what happened after those aforementioned wins.

Up next for the Utes (10-11, 7-10 Pac-12) are Oregon State and Arizona State at home, both winnable games. Utah should be an above .500 team when it enters the Pac-12 Tournament the second week of March.

And on a three-game winning streak. The emphasis is on “should,” because with these guys, who really knows?

Just when the music-loving Krystkowiak was saying “it is nice to have the members of the band back with us,” celebrating the return of sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen (six points, seven rebounds, three assists), Utah might have lost point guard Rylan Jones again.

The sophomore, playing for just the second time since missing four games with a shoulder injury, suffered another shoulder injury midway through the first half while diving for a loose ball. He didn’t return to the game, and could be seen wearing another sling on his right arm/shoulder in the second half.

Krystkowiak said the injury, different than the original injury, “didn’t look good,” but he didn’t know the severity of it.

“We are all crushed for him,” Krystkowiak said. “My heart dropped.”

Jones’ injury and the Utes’ inability to keep the Trojans off the offensive glass — USC had 13 second-chance points on 18 offensive rebounds — were the only downers for the Utes, who needed a pick-me-up after falling 76-61 to UCLA on Thursday, their fourth-straight loss.

Utah committed 15 turnovers, but shot 48% from the field and got contributions from almost everywhere. Ian Martinez popped in 10 points off the bench in 15 minutes, and Pelle Larsson had nine points, five rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes.

“We challenged everybody to have faith in each other and move the ball,” Krystkowiak said.

Utah trailed 18-8 immediately after Jones’ injury — he was whistled for a foul on the play, unbelievably — but clawed back and tied it at 25-25 and 27-27 on a pair of Allen free throws with 2:39 left and a Jantunen layup with 1:40 left.

USC, one of the tallest teams in the country, which beat Utah 64-46 back on Jan. 2, led 29-27 at halftime. But the first five minutes of the second half might go down as the Utes’ best five minutes of the season.

Larsson hit a 3-pointer, Allen hit a jumper and made a 3-point play, Branden Carlson (seven points, three blocked shots) swatted away a shot, Allen threw a beautiful lob to Larsson for a layup and Jantunen got free for an easy inside bucket.

Just like that, the Utes led 43-33 and the Trojans were in trouble.

“This (sharing the ball) is something that can be contagious, and it is going to be stressed,” Krystkowiak said. “For us, the ball has got to pop. We are not a great isolation team.”

Expect the rest of the league to clamor for Utah’s game film. For the second time, the Utes shut down Mobley, who could be an NBA lottery pick.

After not even getting a shot off eight weeks ago in Los Angeles, Mobley fared a little better Saturday. He finished with just six points on 2 of 8 shooting, with 10 rebounds in 24 minutes.

“You have to guard him with five people and limit his touches,” Allen said.

Said Krystkowiak: “You keep hitting him with body punches and try to wear him out.”

The Trojans, who were pummeled at Colorado on Thursday, dropped to 19-6 overall, 13-5 in league play, and will almost certainly see their NET ranking plummet after losing a game they were favored to win by five points over a team with a NET ranking of 105.

It was Utah’s first win over a ranked team since it surprised No. 6 Kentucky 69-66 in Las Vegas on Dec. 18, 2019.

For the Utes, who led for more than 21 minutes and assisted on 19 of 27 field goals, the future suddenly looks brighter than it did two days ago.

For now, that’s a description they can all agree on.