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‘This is a program that is on the rise’: Utes coach sees better days ahead after double-overtime ouster from Pac-12 Tournament

After Thursday’s loss to USC ended their season with a 12-13 record, the Runnin’ Utes insist they can build on an uneven year where they showed flashes of brilliance but wild inconsistency

Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) works to get off a shot with USC Trojans guard Isaiah White (5) defending him 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 forward Timmy Allen works to get off a shot with USC Trojans guard Isaiah White defending him 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

LAS VEGAS — When University of Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak, a hardened veteran of hundreds of gut-wrenching games and dozens of difficult seasons, is nearly brought to tears, you know Thursday night’s double-overtime loss to USC, and the entire year in general, was as tough as could be imagined on everyone involved in the program that probably underachieved in 2020-21.

“Yeah, I am not sure that words really could describe that in an answer form,” Krystkowiak said after the seventh-seeded Utes’ season ended with the 95-89 loss to the second-seeded Trojans at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. “I think we all know how much hardship that everybody has gone through this year, certainly. Not just our team, but the world.”

There will be time and space for season wrap-up comments and articles in future days. Late Thursday the 10th-year coach was mainly focused on one of the Utes’ better performances in their 12-13 season. They pushed USC, an eight-point favorite, to the brink of elimination from the tournament, despite having four players foul out and missing a starter, point guard Rylan Jones.

“I think we were starting to play some pretty good basketball toward the end of the year,” Krystkowiak said. “And this season in my mind is not going to be measured in wins and losses, it is going to be measured on a phrase that we used all year long — where we were a brotherhood, and we were brothers, and we will remain brothers.”

Utah is now 7-10 all-time in the Pac-12 Tournament, and 1-5 in tournament games at T-Mobile. The Utes will miss the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year, but as he concluded an emotional Zoom call with reporters late Thursday, the embattled Krystkowiak promised better days ahead.

“I have no questions in my mind, contrary to a lot of the noise, that this is a program that is on the rise,” he said. “We have got a number of young players playing (in) games. We have guys that want to get in the weight room. We got a lot of high-character people. So I have no reason to believe otherwise.”

In coming days, the two most experienced players on the roster, and the highest scorers, junior forward Timmy Allen and senior guard Alfonso Plummer, will decide whether they will return in 2021-22. Plummer, who can take an extra year if he wants it, has maintained he is undecided. Allen, who had 20 points in 48 minutes, will likely again put his name in for consideration in the NBA draft, then decide after getting feedback from that league regarding his prospects of being selected.

“I have been trying to think about it as small amount as possible all year,” Allen said. “As soon as your head gets somewhere else, you mess up your current situation. I am just trying to be all bought in to this program, to this team, the past year and all three years. I will address that when I need to. But for now, I will just reflect, get some rest, relax a little bit and then get back to it in a couple of weeks and figure it out.”

Fair enough.

Thursday’s game showed all that Allen can offer the Utes, on and off the court.

It also showed that there is a new starter waiting to take over, either next year or in 2022-23. His name is Ian Martinez.

The freshman took over parts of the quarterfinal game, made buckets when Utah absolutely had to have them, and also came up with some phenomenal defensive plays. Martinez finished with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting and played 29 minutes and 42 seconds before fouling out.

“Yeah, I thought Ian really stepped up,” Krystkowiak said. “I was kind of expecting it. I told our coaching staff (he would have a big game). “The one thing about it is we haven’t seen the consistency (yet). We had a little discussion this morning and got down and dirty about some stuff. I am not surprised that he bounced back. … What you saw is what we know Ian can do. At times he was unstoppable, so I have confidence in him and am happy he finished it on a high note.”

Allen said Martinez’s performance wasn’t a surprise. The native of Costa Rica does that all the time in practice.

“Man, he could be really special,” Allen said. “There was a play in the game where he passed it to me, and I threw that thing right back to him, and said, ‘go, rock out,’ because that’s what he is capable of. I mean, I see it every day in practice. I think he has the opportunity to be special as long as he keeps doing what he needs to.”

USC guard Tahj Eaddy hurt the Utes when the Trojans walloped them 64-46 in Los Angeles on Jan. 2, but in Las Vegas, Martinez and others kept him in check. Eaddy had just 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting in 44-plus minutes.

USC Trojans forward Chevez Goodwin (1) begins his shot over Utah Utes guard Ian Martinez (2) as Utah and USC play in the Pac-12 Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 11, 2021.
USC Trojans forward Chevez Goodwin begins his shot over Utah Utes guard Ian Martinez as Utah and USC play in the Pac-12 Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 11, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Ian’s defense is very underrated, especially for our team. He does a lot for us on the defensive end,” Allen said. “So yeah, he had his best game of the year. He could be special. I am proud of that. I am proud he is bought in and we continued to grind through a hard year.”

There were dozens of plays and sequences that the Utes would probably like back, but one missed opportunity came when USC’s 7-foot freshman Evan Mobley, the Pac-12 Player of the Year who scored 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds, headed to the bench with his second foul just seven minutes into the game.

The Utes didn’t capitalize well in his absence. USC led 34-29 at halftime.

“We knew it wasn’t going to get easier when he came back in. They got a lot of players besides Evan Mobley. He is going to be a lottery pick in the draft, but a bunch of guys on their team (are good),” Krystkowiak said. “They had multiple guys in double figures. They had guys that stepped up in his absence, undoubtedly.”

Krystkowiak was most proud that the Utes didn’t throw in the towel when they fell behind by 10 in the second half. With only a couple dozen fans there to cheer them on, they dug deep and created their own energy.

“Our guys never quit. But you can’t control that. You can only control the next play, and we did the best of our ability with that,” Krystkowiak said. “But we didn’t make plays to build the lead with him on the bench. That’s the reality.”

Another harsh fact: Utah’s season is over. In retrospect, it was as tantalizing as Thursday’s final game, and both had unsatisfying endings.