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Analysis: Resilient and always unpredictable Runnin’ Utes deserved their blowout win over listless ASU

Utah clinched the No. 7 seed for next week’s Pac-12 Tournament by handing the visiting Sun Devils an embarrassing loss at the Huntsman Center

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The Utah Utes cheer during a Pac-12 game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 6, 2021. Utah won 98-59 to finish the Pac-12 regular season with an 8-11 record in league play.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

Whatever happens to the University of Utah men’s basketball team next week at the Pac-12 Tournament — and with these guys, nobody can really say what that might be with any degree of certainty — what took place Saturday afternoon in front of a couple dozen friends and family members on Senior Day was well-earned.

“I am not sure if we could have scripted it any better,” said Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak.

Capping off one of the most unpredictable and difficult regular seasons in program history, the Runnin’ Utes demolished Arizona State 98-59 at the Huntsman Center to serve notice that they just might be a force to be reckoned with at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in a couple of days.

“You know, it means everything. Especially having limited fans. I got to have my parents there, so to be able to go out on a high note, be in there for a few minutes, have the guys cheer me on a little bit, it is a dream come true.” — Utah basketball reserve Brooks King on scoring a basket on Senior Night

Raise your hand if you saw this coming after the Utes threw up all over themselves down the stretch last Wednesday at home and lost 75-70 to Oregon State.

Yeah, right.

“It was a good performance by our guys,” Krystkowiak understated.

It might be an overstatement, but this season — Utah’s 10th in the Pac-12 — might end up representing Krysko’s best work, at least in the past couple of seasons. Just when it appears the Utes are going to fold up their tents and start regrouping for next year, they pull another mind-boggling performance out of their hats.

Saturday, they had some help. Arizona State, which somehow had won three of its past four games before its latest no-show in Salt Lake City, played the perfect foil. The Sun Devils looked and played disinterested from almost the opening tip, as Utah led wire-to-wire to clinch the No. 7 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Utah (11-12, 8-11 Pac-12) will face Washington on Wednesday at 5 p.m. MST, with the winner taking on the No. 2 seed on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

Arizona State (10-13, 7-10) gets the No. 8 seed and will face No. 9 seed Washington State on Wednesday. Those lucky, red-clad Cougars. Who wouldn’t want to see the Sun Devils, after the way coach Bobby Hurley’s team played Saturday? 

Granted, the Devils had to play Thursday at Colorado, while Utah was well-rested.

Not that that mattered much.

The Utes led for all but 37 seconds, shot better than 60% until the subs got in, and won the rebounding battle 41-30 three days after getting killed on the offensive glass by the Beavers. Utah had 48 points in the paint, as Timmy Allen, Alfonso Plummer, Mikael Jantunen, Branden Carlson and company time and again rolled to the rim for uncontested layups and dunks.

Utah, which had lost five of its last six before Saturday, got more easy shots in this game than the past three games combined.

“When we move the ball, we are a really good team, and we are tough to beat,” said Plummer, a senior who had 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting in what might have been his last game in the Huntsman Center. He told the Deseret News Friday that he hasn’t decided yet whether he will take the NCAA’s blanket waiver and return next season.

Allen, likely to be named to the all-Pac-12 team next week, added 13 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in 25 minutes, and likely would have had a triple-double if the game hadn’t been a blowout. Krystkowiak sat most of his regulars the last nine-plus minutes of the game.

Utah should insist on visits from ASU every Senior Night. Three of the Utes’ five biggest Pac-12 wins have come against ASU, by 42 in 2015, by 35 in 2016, and this one. 

Redshirt junior guard Brooks King, the Boise native who has said this is his final season with the Utes, said he couldn’t have asked for anything better.

“Not in a home game like that, especially against Arizona State, that was great, especially on Senior Night,” said King, whose parents were in attendance.

King scored his first points of the season with a minute, 3 seconds remaining, off an assist from seldom-used Eli Ballstaedt.

“You know, it means everything,” King said. “Especially having limited fans. I got to have my parents there, so to be able to go out on a high note, be in there for a few minutes, have the guys cheer me on a little bit, it is a dream come true.”

Kystkowiak said it was “wonderful” to have been able to get King, Jordan Kellier, Jaxon Brenchley, Jack Jamele, Lahat Thioune and Ballstaedt minutes. A huge bench celebration broke out after King’s bucket and then again when the 6-foot-10 Thioune hit a 3-pointer.

“So yeah, it was a lot of fun for our guys, the celebration and the smiles. Winning is great medicine,” Krystkowiak said. “Loved the enthusiasm from our bench for the guys. It is definitely going to be enjoyed today, and then we have got to start some prep for Vegas and continue to build.”

The coach called Thioune’s 3-pointer “priceless” and said the big guy is actually a good long-range shooter.

“He is money in our shooting games,” Krystkowiak said. “He shoots with great accuracy.”

It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies for either side. As Utah was pulling away in the second half, Hurley picked up a technical foul. Minutes later, Utah’s Allen was hit with a T as well and had to be restrained from going after somebody on ASU’s bench.

In the postgame interview on Zoom, Plummer said from his perspective Allen was saying something to Jantunen (15 points, seven rebounds) when somebody from the ASU bench “said something rude to Timmy, and then Timmy just got mad, or something.”

All it did was fire up the Utes even more, and they kept pouring it on.

Carlson (11 points, eight rebounds, two blocks) was his usual dominating self inside, while Ian Martinez added 12 off the bench.

The Utes played one of their best halves of the season in taking a 41-28 lead at the break, then it only got better.

Remember those second-half meltdowns against Colorado, Oregon and California in January? A thing of the past.

The game got out of hand early in the second half, but the first half is worth remembering, if only because the Sun Devils hadn’t completely stopped trying.

The Utes shot 59%, overcame starting point guard Pelle Larsson’s two early fouls with outstanding play from Martinez off the bench and were far more dialed in than the Sun Devils.

Martinez played well, after he was the only reserve to score (three points) in the Utes’ big loss Wednesday to Oregon State.

Jantunen was the catalyst in the first-half, scoring 13 points and grabbing four rebounds in the first 20 minutes.

The visitors didn’t get a field goal until 15:50 remained in the half and shot a frosty 39% from the field. If not for Alonzo Verge Jr., the Devils would have been even further behind — he had 13 in the half, while Remy Martin, the Pac-12’s leading scorer with a 20.5 average, did not score in the first half and finished with just eight points on 3-of-7 shooting.

Verge and Holland Woods led ASU with 13 points apiece.

After the game, Utah director of player development Donny Daniels was also honored, because he is retiring after more than 40 years in basketball.