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‘Morale booster’: Big win over No. 19 USC has Runnin’ Utes believing they can make some March memories

Sitting in ninth place in the Pac-12 standings, Utah hopes to keep its momentum going, and move into a better seed for the conference tournament next week, when it hosts Oregon State on Wednesday and Arizona State on Saturday

Utah celebrates during a timeout as the Utes pull away from USC during a game at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.
Utah celebrates during a timeout as the Utes pull away from USC during a game at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. The Utes defeated USC 71-61 and will host Oregon State and Arizona State this week before traveling to the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Players, coaches, trainers and even team managers had a little more pep in their steps Monday as the Runnin’ Utes returned to practice after Saturday’s convincing 71-61 upset of then-No. 19 USC at the Huntsman Center.

And why not?

The victory that seemingly came out of nowhere snapped a four-game losing skid, and served notice once again that Utah is a different team with starting forward Mikael Jantunen on the court and might just be able to do some damage to the bracket when the Pac-12 Tournament begins next week at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“I would say it was a good morale booster,” sophomore center Branden Carlson said Wednesday. “We have said it plenty of times this season: We are good enough to beat anyone, but we can also lose to anyone as well. So it shows us that we are a good team when we are together and we play basketball games the right way.”

Sitting in ninth place in the Pac-12 standings, Utah (10-11, 7-10) can move up a spot or two if it can duplicate Saturday’s effort this week as the regular season concludes with a couple makeup games at the Huntsman Center — Wednesday against seventh-place Oregon State (9-9, 13-11) and Saturday against eighth-place Arizona State (7-8, 10-11).

Tipoff on Wednesday is at 5 p.m. MST and the game will be televised by ESPNU. Tipoff for Saturday’s game has been moved to noon and the first Utes-Sun Devils matchup of the season will air on FS1.

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said Wednesday it is “always important to approach practice (the same) regardless of what took place in the previous game,” but acknowledged that practices Monday and Tuesday were spirited and the Utes have upped their confidence level.

“The analogy I have used for a number of years is you are never as good as you think you are and you are never as bad as you think you are,” he said. “So coming off a win felt good, and it is medicinal for our guys. ... It has been good.”

The coach has shortened practices as the calendar has turned to March.

“It is not the time of year where you are practicing for two hours,” he said. “You have to be cognizant of guys’ legs and make sure you are fresh and avoiding any injury opportunities. So it is a condensed practice, but still high-quality and high-intensity. We just don’t go for as long.”

The Utes don’t have a lot of revenge on their minds when the Beavers visit, Carlson said, with Utah having been drubbed 74-56 in Corvallis back on Feb. 18. The goal is to not lose the momentum, and good vibes, that knocking off the second-place Trojans brought to the facility.

“I think at Oregon State, we were not in our (rhythm),” Carlson said. “We were just not having a good game. We had too many turnovers, we weren’t making our shots.”

And the Utes didn’t have the 6-foot-8 Jantunen, who was away with the Finnish national team, helping it qualify for EuroBasket 2022 with a win over Switzerland. Jantunen was back in the lineup for the USC game and had six points, seven rebounds and three assists in 33 minutes.

“It is nice that we have Mickey back,” Carlson said. “That will help us. He is a big part of our team, so it will be good.”

But while the Utes finally got Jantunen back, they lost sophomore guard Rylan Jones again, most likely for awhile. The former Olympus High star re-injured his shoulder diving for a loose ball in the first half against the Trojans and didn’t return.

Krystkowiak said Saturday night he didn’t know the severity of the injury and would only say Wednesday when asked about it that it is not season-ending.

“I know it is a little bit different than how he hurt it before,” Krystkowiak had said immediately after the USC game. “My fingers are crossed. We are all crushed for him, there is no question.”

The loss of Jones hurts, but it has been softened a bit by the emergence of freshman guard Pelle Larsson since the opener and freshman wing Ian Martinez the last half-dozen or so games. Jones’ numbers have been down across the board, even when he was healthy.

He is averaging 4.4 points and 4.0 assists in 28.9 minutes, after having averaged 9.6 points, 4.5 assists and 31.5 minutes per game in his phenomenal freshman season.

Oregon State enters Wednesday’s game on a roll, having swept the Bay Area teams last weekend. When OSU dumped the Utes in Corvallis, Ethan Thompson had 25 points, five rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and four steals in one of the most impressive games against the Utes this season.

He leads OSU with a 15.9 scoring average.

“There is nothing like March if you are a basketball coach, player. It is an awesome month in a lot of regards,” Krystkowiak said.

Especially when you enter it coming off a big win.