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Better than its record? Utah proves its mettle in gut-busting 2OT loss to No. 24 USC in Pac-12 quarterfinals

After four Utes foul out, Trojans pull out the 91-85 win to advance to Friday’s semifinals at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak draws up a play on his whiteboard during a timeout in the second overtime as Utah and USC play in the Pac-12 Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 11, 2021. USC won 91-85 in double overtime.
Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak draws up a play on his whiteboard during a timeout in the second overtime as Utah and USC play in the Pac-12 Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 11, 2021. USC won 91-85 in double overtime.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

For more than 45 minutes on Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena on the famed Las Vegas Strip, the Runnin’ Utes went toe-to-toe with one of the best basketball teams in the country, let alone the Pac-12.

Then they just ran out of gas. Simple as that.

“That game was life or death; I was locked in,” said Utah forward Timmy Allen, summing up a nearly three-hour marathon filled with memorable plays, gut-busting mistakes and a year’s worth of controversial calls. “I was ready to go another five minutes, if I had to, to win.”

Utah’s best player never got that chance.

With four Utes having fouled out, including Allen, the gritty and determined Utes finally crapped out, rolling a seven in the second overtime period to conclude a roller-coaster season filled with plenty of ups and downs — just like Thursday’s Pac-12 quarterfinal.

Second-seeded USC had a little more firepower when it mattered most, and outlasted Utah to claim a 91-85 double-overtime win in one of the best college basketball games of the pandemic-ravaged season.

“I just couldn’t be more proud of our team,” an emotional coach Larry Krystkowiak said when the two-hour, 47-minute marathon was over, pausing to hold off tears. “There’s no quit.”

This one is going to be remembered for a long, long time. It will sting even longer for the Utes, who had their chances to win, but mostly found themselves fighting off last-second USC possessions to stay alive.

“That was one of the craziest games I have ever been involved in,” said Allen, who finished with a team-high 20 points.

Pac-12 Player of the Year Evan Mobley led USC with 26 points, going 7 of 14 from the field and 11 of 14 from the line. When the game was on the line, the freshman delivered, something he wasn’t able to do in two previous clashes with the Utes. For the first time in three meetings with Utah, he was the best player on the floor.

In the second overtime, Mobley scored USC’s first seven points and the Utes simply ran out of players capable of keeping them afloat. Allen became the fourth Ute to foul out in that stretch, joining Mikael Jantunen, Ian Martinez and Riley Battin on the bench. Branden Carlson finished the game with four fouls.

The key and deciding sequence in a game filled with as many twists and turns as the roller coaster attached to the New York, New York casino next door, came midway through the second overtime.

Trailing 85-83, the Utes had possession after Pelle Larsson missed a free throw, but a baseline pass went off Allen’s foot. On Utah’s next possession, Carlson’s jump hook went in and out, then Plummer missed a driving layup.

Evan Mobley’s layup gave USC a four-point lead with 46 seconds left, and the Utes were finished. Even then, Krystkowiak thought his never-say-die team with just one senior, Plummer, had a chance.

“I was very optimistic we could pull it off,” he said.

They couldn’t — not with all their big guns except Larsson, Carlson and Alfonso Plummer on the bench, and especially not when Plummer was being guarded more closely than a Las Vegas jackpot after what he did to the Trojans at the end of the first overtime.

In a shot that would have been remembered as one of the best in program history had Utah won, Plummer made a 3-pointer over the 7-foot Mobley’s outstretched arms with 32 seconds left to knot the game at 80-80. Credit Krystkowiak, under fire from a segment of Utah’s fan base, for drawing up a play to get Plummer the look when everybody in the near-empty building — 100 or so people — knew the ball was going to the guy who made 11 3-pointers in one game here last March.

When Tahj Eaddy’s driving layup rimmed out and a tip didn’t come close, the game went into a second overtime.

Plummer had 16 points on 6 of 15 shots, while freshman Ian Martinez added 18 and would also have been hailed as a hero if the Utes had prevailed.

At the end of regulation, Plummer was fouled attempting a 3-pointer with 1:16 left, but missed the first freebie before hitting two to cut the USC lead to 68-67.

Utah caught a break when Ethan Anderson, a 61% free-throw shooter, missed a pair with 14.7 seconds left.

After a timeout, Martinez went isolation and drew a foul with 2.3 seconds left. He made both pressure-packed free throws to send the game into overtime.

“I was kind of expecting it,” Krystkowiak said of Martinez’s big game. “He made some terrific plays. At times, he was unstoppable.”

Fatigue finally stopped the Utes, however. Utah missed its last eight shots, and went the final 3:38 of the second overtime without a field goal.

Krystkowiak said after most seasons, he is ready for a vacation. But not this one.

“I would love to keep coaching them,” he said.

No, he wasn’t talking like a coach whose job is in jeopardy — and maybe it is — but more in the sense that he enjoyed this group as much as any he’s had in 10 seasons on The Hill.

“I have no question in my mind, contrary to all the noise, that this program is on the rise,” he said.

The Utes finished this most unusual season with a 12-13 record, and if nothing else, Thursday’s showing validated a claim weeks ago in this space that this might be the best sub-.500 team in the country.

“This game reflects (Utah is better than its record),” Allen said. “To be honest, I don’t think coming into this tournament many teams wanted to play us.”

USC was one of those, having lost 71-61 to the Utes in Salt Lake City last month. The Trojans (23-6) led most of the way, but could never really pull away.

Utah was looking good when Allen opened the second half with a 3-point play to cut USC’s lead to 34-32, but each time the Utes got close, USC found another gear, another player to make the big shot.

For instance, Battin hit a 3 to chew into USC’s lead with 14:56 left, only to see Ethan Anderson make a 3-point play on the other end.

The Utes trailed by four and had the ball when they hit a rough stretch, a stretch emblematic of their rough season. Jantunen, the league’s leader in field goal percentage (59.2%) missed a bunny, then Eaddy nailed a triple on the other end.

Allen’s shot was swatted by Evan Mobley, and moments later his brother, Isaiah Mobley, drained a 3 and USC was up 10.

But Utah wouldn’t quit. The team that suffered only four double-digit losses — to BYU, Oregon State, USC and UCLA — all season kept fighting on.

Plummer and Martinez hit back-to-back buckets, and USC’s lead was just 66-60 at the under four-minutes media timeout.

Krystkowiak wrote “Believe” on a white board in the locker room before the game, and continued that theme during every timeout.

In the end, unfortunately, there just weren’t enough eligible and capable players to read it.