March 03, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The 13th-ranked Utah Utes are in the midst of their best stretch of the season with a six-game winning streak, including an upset of then-No. 9 Arizona and returning to the polls after being unranked for seven consecutive weeks. The improved play of seniors Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge may be the biggest difference during the run.

Center Jakob Poeltl is a future NBA first-round draft pick and a contender for Pac-12 player of the year, but Taylor and Loveridge are the senior leaders. And those two were simply off for a period of the conference season. Both, however, have improved their numbers across the board in the last six games, according to STATS.

Taylor's points average increased by three (12.5) and his assists by nearly two (5.3). The point guard's shooting percentage went from 37.8 in the first 11 Pac-12 games to 52.9 in the last six. His 3-point percentage has gone from 32.8 percent to 55.9 percent.

Loveridge's numbers are also on an upswing. His points have gone from 9.5 to 14.0. The 6-foot-6 wing's shooting percentage has gone from 36.7 percent to 41.8 percent and the 3-point numbers have increased from 38.1 percent to 40.8 percent.

Poeltl has dominated all season, but he needed help from the perimeter. He's getting that more consistently now.

Taylor said he was at ''the bottom of the bottom'' after missing free throws against Stanford and making bigger mistakes in losses to Oregon and Oregon State. The Utes led by one point with 3 seconds left against the Beavers, but Taylor fouled Stephen Thompson Jr. on a halfcourt heave with 1 second left. Thompson hit all three free throws to win the game.

Taylor said he talked to coach Larry Krystkowiak afterward and also his mother, father and grandmother.

''I was so down and out, it didn't make any sense,'' Taylor said. ''It was just like, you've done this all your life. You know how to get through situations. You've been through way harder stuff.

''I knew those tough times weren't going to last.''

Taylor called it ''the worst feeling you could have'' - knowing he wasn't performing to his capabilities. He admitted that it was getting to his head, but he hasn't made dramatic changes.

''I'm just in a better state mentally,'' Taylor said. ''I'm just going out there and trying to make the best play I can make.

''It's just, my confidence is there. ... I'm not getting too stuck on the last game or the last play. I'm moving forward because I want to be better. ... I knew the turnaround was going to happen, I just didn't know when. I put in too much work for this to go downhill.''

Loveridge admitted he had begun to slack on some of the details. He spoke with his father and dug into the film and saw little things that, added up, were making a big difference. Loveridge wasn't getting the same lift on his jumper. He wasn't going all out for loose balls and rebounds or getting extra looks on offense from simply running hard. Things came to a head after the two losses on the Oregon trip where the team ''didn't like that feeling, that taste we had,'' according to Loveridge.

''I just had to take a step back and realize you don't get that many more (opportunities),'' Loveridge said. ''Just knowing that if I want to have a future and help my team right now, I have to play hard every possession and try to make the most of every possession.

''When your days are numbered, it's going to be human nature (to take it up another notch). ... Me and Brandon definitely know there aren't many games left.''

The Utes (23-7, 12-5) wrap up the season Saturday against Colorado. They can share their first Pac-12 regular-season title if No. 9 Oregon loses to USC and they beat Colorado. Oregon has already locked up the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament.

Krystkowiak points to the defense for the recent success, but life is much better for the Utes when shots fall and the offense flows.

''If we really focus on getting stops and pushing the tempo to the other end of the floor and putting some heat on people, that's when the games gets a little bit easier,'' Krystkowiak said. ''We've got a number of guys that have played a lot of minutes here and they understand how it is we're trying to play and what we're trying to do.

''Let's try to get clicking on as many cylinders as we can this time of year and get as many guys playing well right now. That's important because we're in March.''

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