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After posting another quality Pac-12 win, improved Runnin’ Utes try not to wonder what might have been

Utah’s 73-58 win over Arizona Thursday marked the first time the Utes have won consecutive Pac-12 games this season, and showed the Utes have what it takes to make some noise in February

The Utah Utes and Arizona Wildcats fight for the ball during a men’s basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.
Utah upset Arizona 73-58 on Feb. 4, 2021, at the Huntsman Center to improve its overall record to 8-7 and take its second consecutive Pac-12 win for the first time this season. Utah plays at Cal on Thursday, barring a last-minute schedule addition.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak often refers to other sports to get his point across, and on Thursday night after the Runnin’ Utes smoked Arizona 73-58 to win back-to-back conference games for the first time this season, his sport of choice was golf.

That was somehow appropriate, because at this juncture of the season the Utes (8-7, 5-6 Pac-12) could really use a mulligan. They would love to have those middle-of-January games back, get a do-over, because they are clearly much better than they were a few weeks ago.

Having rallied back from a 19-point deficit in the final nine minutes to stun NCAA Tournament-bound Colorado 77-74 in Boulder last Saturday, and having dominated a pretty good Wildcats team Thursday at the Huntsman Center, Utah players and coaches are wondering what might have been.

“I think our record doesn’t show how good we can be,” star junior Timmy Allen said after scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds to lead the Utes in both statistical categories Thursday. Allen has been a steadying force for the Utes all season, is slowly emerging as a fringe candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors, and has moved into 29th place on Utah’s all-time scoring list with 1,145 career points.

Barring a last-minute addition to the schedule, perhaps a game Monday or Tuesday, Utah doesn’t play again until Thursday against Cal (7-13, 2-11) in Berkeley. The Bears play at Stanford Sunday night after the Super Bowl.

For Utah, the Cal game will spring reminders of January’s low point. On Jan. 16, the Utes led the lowly Bears 34-22 at the Huntsman Center, only to fall apart in the second half and fall 72-63, dropping their league record to 2-5.

Frustration reigned, although Krystkowiak says that word can’t be a part of a basketball team’s vocabulary.

“I mean, this is not a business you want to be in, nor a sport that you play, where frustration can be any part of it,” he said. “We are in control of a lot of things to avoid frustration. I think that’s where our guys have really rallied around that concept (of controlling things they can control).”

Utah’s season has been puzzling, and full of “what-ifs” because of the quality wins it has engineered, the most recent being the Quad 2 win over Arizona in the NCAA’s NET ranking system. The victory moved Utah’s NET ranking up to 83 — the Utes are still a long, long way from the NCAA Tournament bubble — and served notice that no game against Utah from here on out will be a gimme.

Utah also has a Quad 1 win at Colorado, and Quad 2 wins vs. Stanford and at Washington State.

As of Friday morning, Utah’s Kenpom.com rating was 66; Arizona’s dropped to 39, one below No. 38 BYU, which pounded Utah 82-64 at the Marriott Center in December, another game the Utes would love to have back.

Arizona is not eligible for postseason play, having self-imposed a one-year ban in December 2020.

Highs and lows, inspiring upsets and embarrassing losses, “are what a season is all about and to me that’s what a program needs to do, is continuing grinding and keep chopping wood,” Krystkowiak said.

Utah has done that.

After playing perhaps his best all-around game as a Ute — four assists, three rebounds and 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting while also keeping Arizona guard James Akinjo from going off — freshman guard Pelle Larsson said the Utes can’t afford to look back and dwell on previous failures.

“I mean, you just gotta try to look forward and focus on what is in front of you,” Larsson said. “Those games that we lost, we lost them, and you just gotta move on from that. We have done a good job of that.”

Still, how fun would this month be for the Utes if they hadn’t blown double-digit halftime leads against then-No. 17 Oregon and Colorado at the Huntsman Center? How intriguing would February be if Utah hadn’t committed three turnovers in the final two minutes against Washington in that gut-punch of an 83-79 loss in Seattle on Jan. 24?

“It seems like we had three or four losses that stung us quite a bit,” Krystkowiak said. “It hasn’t really been the sting of one loss that has hung with us. I think it has been knowing that we can play better basketball.”

Actually, that knowledge has driven the Utes, Allen said.

“No excuses, but we were in all those games, to be honest,” he said. “We should have got at least two or three of them.”

But as Krystkowiak says, losses are a lot like golf rounds. Nobody wants to hear about the lipped-out putts, the triple bogeys or the lucky bounces.

“Nobody really wants to know the whole story,” he said. “So frustration can’t be a part of it. Nor can the extreme highs. You write the score down and you move on and try to do better on the next hole.”

Or the next basketball game — even if it is almost a week away.