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Utah basketball: ‘Dangerous’ Runnin’ Utes pick up some much-needed momentum before Pac-12 Tournament

Impressive 98-59 win over Arizona State on Senior Day boosted Utah’s confidence and showed it can be a dangerous team in Las Vegas on Wednesday when it meets Washington at T-Mobile Arena.

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Utah basketball players Riley Battin and Lahat Thioune celebrate Thioune’s 3-pointer in the Runnin’ Utes’ big win over Arizona State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 6, 2021. Utah clinched the No. 7 seed for the Pac-12 Tournament with the victory.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

Sure, there are probably better ways to go charging into a conference tournament than the route Utah’s Runnin’ Utes are taking this season, but it sure didn’t feel like that Saturday afternoon after coach Larry Krystkowiak’s mercurial team absolutely buried Arizona State 98-59 at the Huntsman Center.

It was almost as if the Utes wanted to take out all their frustrations for not quite living up to their own preseason expectations on the Sun Devils, a decent team, albeit shorthanded, that had won three of its last four games before making the ill-fated trip to Salt Lake City for a makeup game.

“It was really priceless,” Krystkowiak said.

“We know that when we move the ball, we are a really good team, and we are tough to beat. I feel like this game taught us that if we move the ball, and everybody gets touches, we can be really dangerous in the playoffs.” — Utah guard Alfonso Plummer.

The 10-year coach was referring to one of the most feel-good moments of the season, redshirt sophomore Lahat Thioune’s 3-pointer with 16 seconds remaining, and the eruption of sheer joy on the Utah sidelines that accompanied the 6-foot-10 center’s first career triple.

But Krystkowiak could easily have been talking about the shot of confidence the entire game gave the Utes, who finished the regular season 11-12 overall, and 8-11 in the Pac-12.There are hotter teams in the well-balanced league, but none riding into Las Vegas on a higher note.

“It is going to help us to keep grinding,” said guard Alfonso Plummer. “We know that when we move the ball, we are a really good team, and we are tough to beat. I feel like this game taught us that if we move the ball, and everybody gets touches, we can be really dangerous in the playoffs.”

Hat tip to the Utes, who battled COVID-19 issues in November and December that forced some cancellations and postponements, but were able to get in 19 of 20 conference games. The only scheduled league game they weren’t able to eventually play was the one at Arizona State.

Picked to finish eighth in the preseason Pac-12 poll, Utah did just that (it got a higher seed because Arizona is ineligible for postseason play), despite missing two key starters — point guard Rylan Jones (still out) and power forward Mikael Jantunen) — down the stretch.

Redshirt-junior Brooks King, who graduates this spring with a degree in finance and is moving on, had a front-row seat.

Here’s how the Boise, Idaho, product describes these Utes: “You know, we are resilient,” he said. “Every day we come in and we do our thing and sometimes we get the wrong side of the coin flip. But (against ASU) we came in and did our thing and that’s something about our team: we are going to come in and give it our all every game.”

The Sun Devils (10-13, 7-10) are probably grateful that Dec. 22 game in Tempe never happened. They simply ran into a buzz saw on Utah’s Senior Day. Utah shot 59% and held ASU to 37.5%.

“It is the definition of brotherhood and pulling for each other, so it was special,” Krystkowiak said of the way starters starting rooting on reserves. “It was really cool.”

Question now becomes, can the Utes keep it up?

Having clinched the No. 7 seed, Utah will face No. 10 Washington (5-20, 4-16) on Wednesday at 6 p.m. MST at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in a first-round game. The winner will play the No. 2 seed on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

Will that be the Utes? They will probably be three- or four-point favorites, seeing as how they have a better record, and are playing better than the Huskies right now. 

“I don’t think there are going to be any surprises as far as what they do,” Krystkowiak said. “They are a unique zone team (with) a lot of length, and present a lot of different challenges for you. They have got good size and good senior leadership in their backcourt. Those are things that are always valuable this time of year.”

Washington has lost three straight, including a 97-64 loss at ASU, that same ASU that was humiliated Saturday by the Utes.

Utah began Pac-12 play way back on Dec. 3 with a 76-62 cakewalk over UW in SLC, but at Washington on Jan. 24 the Huskies rallied in the final minutes and took an 83-79 win. The Utes were in control in Seattle for most of the game, but committed some costly turnovers late and failed to finish — a nagging habit that continued through February.

But all that will be forgotten if probable Pac-12 all-league player Timmy Allen, Jantunen, Plummer, Branden Carlson and the rest of the crew can put together a couple Senior Day-like performances in Sin City.