Entering Thursday night's game between Utah and Washington State, it was unknown who needed the win more.
Utah was coming in attached to a 13-game road losing streak and having just suffered one of its worst losses in 5 years when it blew a 15-point lead to visiting Cal this past weekend. The Utes were largely viewed as one of the most under-performing teams in the conference — and whether that be COVID-19 related or not, it is what it is.
Meanwhile Washington State was on a three-game losing streak, including a 15-point loss to Stanford and 30-point blowout defeat to UCLA. Another loss, especially at home to the Utes and with Colorado on the horizon, could really send the Cougars' once promising season off the rails.
But once the game ended late Thursday night, it was clear that only one team came out with the focus and urgency needed to break its losing streak — Utah. Led by five players in double-figures, the Utes battered Washington State 71-56 and gave its season hope.
“It was a good win for the Utes,” head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “A really good win. A good little bit of feel-good medicine. I don’t think we are going to get fat and sassy. ... But certainly it energizes our group and validates what it is we are trying to do.”
In his return to the starting lineup, sophomore center Branden Carlson had his best game of the season when he finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, Utah's first double-double of the season. He logged a team-high 35 minutes while adding two blocks and one assist on 7-for-12 shooting from the floor.
“A win is a win,” Carlson said of Utah’s victory breaking the losing streak. “We kinda got out of that drought.”
The bench was led by Alfonso Plummer and Riley Battin, the latter of whom broke out of his shooting slump in a big way. Plummer scored 12 points while Battin added 12 points (5-of-7 from the field, 2-of-3 from deep) and four rebounds.
Timmy Allen added 13 points, six rebounds and two assists in a quiet but efficient night. Mikael Jantunen, who left the game with another facial injury and was transported to a local hospital, added 10 points in just 18 minutes.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed here and waiting to hear what happens (at the hospital),” Krystkowiak said. “He is a warrior, though, and it is a shame that he got smacked. Stay tuned on that one.”
The Utes were able to put some of those second half demons behind them after taking a 17-point advantage at the break, stretching their lead to 20 points for the majority of the half.
While it was a great offensive performances scoring wise for multiple players, the play of starting point guard Rylan Jones can't be understated.
His 'struggles' have been well documented this season after averaging 9.6 points and 4.5 assists per game last year, all while shooting 40% from the floor and 38.6% from beyond the arc. This year though, his scoring has dropped to 5.7 points while shooting 36.8% from the floor and 31.3% from three-point territory.
But last night Jones proved that you don't need to score to be the best player on the court. He dished out 10 assists while adding five points and three rebounds. His ability to break down the Cougars defense and get into the paint really opened up the floor for the rest of the team, and made the offense extremely easy.
Even more than his offensive game, Jones was sensational on Washington State star guard Isaac Bonton and his 18.9 points (second best in the Pac-12), 4.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.9 steals per game averages. With Jones hounding him and fighting through screens all night, Bonton finished with four points (1-for-8 from the field), three rebounds, two assists and four turnovers.
“It took an awful lot of energy (to guard Bonton),” Krystkowiak said. “A lot of it was Rylan, not letting the kid catch it, being involved in numerous pick and rolls. … It is what a basketball player does. Maybe if you are not seeing shots go down, you hang your hat on the defensive end.”
Utah will now turn its attention to Washington, the last place team in the Pac-12. The Utes and Huskies will tipoff on Sunday at 2 p.m. on ESPN2 or ESPNU.
“This group is hungry and mature and they stay with it,” Krystkowiak said. “From my perspective, it is awesome to see them rewarded.”
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