SALT LAKE CITY — Down 2 points at the halftime break, Utah had scraped and clawed just to keep the game close against No. 19 USC at the Huntsman Center Saturday night.
But the Utes used a quick 8-0 run that started with a Pelle Larsson top-of-the-key 3-pointer and a Timmy Allen old fashioned 3-point play to jumpstart a second-half comeback. USC head coach Andy Enfield had seen enough and called a timeout to breakup the Utah surge.
The timeout was just a temporary break, though, as Utah built up a 13-point lead and looked to be in control of a USC team that struggled to convert on the offensive side of the ball against a tough interior presence of Utah. The Utes held on to the bitter end and upset USC 71-61, snapping a four-game losing skid and earning the most impressive win of the season just over a week before the Pac-12 tournament.
“If you really come out with a competitive mindset and you come out with a connected mindset, where you’re trying to do things collectively, I think our team can be pretty good,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
“When you look back, a win’s always a bright spot and losses are not a bright spot, but the key right now is for us to get clicking along on more cylinders.”
Utah (10-11, 7-10) outshot USC 44-32 in the second half and was led by Alfonso Plummer, who finished with 19 points and three rebounds and was a key component to Utah’s second-half run, making three timely 3-pointers in the second half to pace Utah to a win. Allen added 15 points and eight assists to give Utah an attacking post presence.
USC (19-6, 13-5) attempted a full court press late in the game in an effort to turnover Utah, who finished with 15 turnovers in the game — 10 of which came in the first half — but Utah didn’t budge and held on to the victory.
In the first eight minutes of play, Utah’s Branden Carlson picked up his second foul — an illegal screen against a USC player already falling to the ground — and Rylan Jones left the game due to what appeared to be another injury to his right shoulder after jumping on the ground to collect a loose ball. At that time, USC showed no letup and controlled a 16-8 lead in what appeared to be the start of a rout in favor of the best team in the Pac-12.
That is until freshman Ian Martinez checked into the game.
The stat sheet may not have completely showcased all that Martinez did to turn the tide, but he was an integral part of Utah battling back against USC midway through the first half. His quick and active hands picked off a pass that was taken back for some air time on an uncontested dunk, and his aggressive fight in the post gave Utah multiple second-chance shots, including a kickout 3-pointer to Alfonso Plummer in the corner for 3-pointer.
Battling down low again, Martinez fought for a basket under the hoop with three USC defenders surrounding him and got the shot to fall and the ensuing make from the free-throw line to complete the 3-point play. On the defensive side, Martinez blocked a shot and stifled a USC team trying to get anything to fall amid a multitude of turnovers.
At the break, Utah trailed 29-27 and the two teams combined for 19 turnovers. But Martinez was much of the reason Utah kept the game within striking distance.
“He was instrumental tonight,” Krystkowiak said. “His energy and length and athleticism — he got out in passing lanes and got a big steal for us and a dunk, got some other deflections; he’s long and he’s cat-like quick.
“He stepped up and did what he’s capable of doing — staying in the moment and trying to win the next play.”
Fresh off an overseas trip to play with the Finnish National Team, Mikael Jantunen returned to the starting lineup for the Utes and finished with 6 points, seven rebounds and three assists in the win.
Utah held USC’s leading scorer and likely NBA draft pick Evan Mobley to 11 points — seven of which came from the free throw line — and limited his impact in a game he’s used to controlling.
“You can’t take everything away with the player of his caliber,” Krystkowiak said, “but you try — you just keep hitting him with body punches, try to wear them out and make them earn everything they get.”
Allen said the effort was a five-man attack against Mobley.
“Playing a guy like him, it’s not a one-on-one matchup,” he added. “It takes all of us to set a limit on as many touches as he can get. I think we did a good job of that.”
Krystkowiak said he did not know the extent of Jones’ shoulder injury, though it appeared to be a little different than how he hurt it a few weeks ago when it forced him to miss four games.
“I know it’s a little bit different than how he hurt it before — my fingers are crossed — but we’re all crushed for him, there’s no question,” Krystkowiak said. “He went after a ball in typical Rylan fashion, a loose ball on the floor and sprawled out and torqued his shoulder again. My heart dropped.
“We talked about it in the timeout — we lost one of our brothers and we need to have some guys step up and make up for his absence. We’ll keep him in our thoughts and prayers and hope that we can get him back on the court again. It’s a sad situation.”