Pac-12 tournament: Utes handle Trojans 80-72, advance to semifinals

IMG_6639 Emily Juchau

Thanks to a couple of clutch three-pointers from sophomore Kyle Kuzma and point guard Brandon Taylor in the closing minutes of the game, Utah opened its first round of the Pac-12 tournament with an 80-72 win over the USC Trojans. This is the second time the Utes have beaten the Trojans this season.

With the win, Utah advances to play in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament against Cal, who defeated Oregon State 76-68 in the game following Utah’s.

Kuzma led Utah with 23 points and seven rebounds, and although he hasn’t been playing like this in recent games, he attributes his performance to his work ethic this last week in practice and a recent meeting he had with head coach Larry Krystkowiak.

“I made an extra focus on trying to play hard. It’s good karma,” Kuzma said.

Both Jakob Poeltl and Lorenzo Bonam finished with 14 points, while Poeltl added eight rebounds to his stat line. Jordan Loveridge also finished in double digits with 13 points and five assists, as the team shot 60.8 percent from the floor.

Turnovers were a problem as the Utes committed 13, which USC got 17 points off of. Despite this, Krystkowiak thinks his players played team basketball, and it’s because of this, and their overall defense, that the Utes came out on top.

“If you can get three or four guys stepping up, the essence of the team moving the basketball, that’s the key,” Krystkowiak said. “I really like the way we pass it and share it.”

Poeltl was whistled for an early offensive foul in the game, as Bonam got off to a hot start, scoring Utah’s first seven points. USC was hanging in there with the Utes and took an 8-7 lead about four minutes into the game. However, after Bonam was forced to take a desperation three-pointer and subsequently made it, the Utes got back on top, 10-8.

USC responded with its own three, as Utah committed a quick five turnovers. After a couple of baskets from Poeltl and Brekkott Chapman, the Utes went up 14-13. But the Trojans scored five points to take an 18-14 lead.

Bonam went out after taking a hit to the floor, limping over to the bench. But the shooting guard quickly got back on the court and continued to lead the way for the Utes. On the ensuing possession, it was bench man Dakarai Tucker who made a three-pointer to put the Utes up 32-29.

Kuzma caught the hot hand in the closing minutes of the half, helping Utah take an eight-point lead, 41-33, heading into the locker room.

Loveridge made a mid-range shot to open the second half for Utah, and Poeltl soon worked his way in the paint to give Utah a double-digit lead. USC drained a three-pointer, but Kuzma continued to power his way to the hoop, as Utah led 47-38.

USC started to cut into the lead, and although the Utes did get another basket to fall, USC made it a six-point game at 51-45 with about 14 minutes left. With no hesitation, Loveridge made a three-pointer, then Tucker made his second three of the night, and the Utes led 57-45.

USC got a couple more points, but Loveridge had a nice shot fake to get USC in the air, then side-stepped to drain a step-back three to put Utah up by 13 points. The Trojans responded with a three of their own, and eventually cut the lead to single digits as the half wound down.

Later on, USC got a couple of blocks and converted a transition layup, plus the foul and free throw to, once again, cut the lead to six points. The Trojans were playing Poeltl straight up, as the big man wasn’t making much of a difference down the stretch scoring-wise.

The Trojans were getting plenty of offensive rebounds and eventually made it a two-point game, putting the pressure on. But Kuzma drained a three to put the Utes up by five points, and just minutes later, Taylor came up clutch and three from the parking lot to put the Utes up by six points.

“I was just confident, and thought I had an open shot,” Taylor said.

USC was pressing the Utes with about a minute left, but it backfired as Kuzma found himself open on the other end for a wide-open dunk to put the Utes up 77-69. Loveridge made a free throw, and Kuzma had one final dunk to bring the Utes’ total to 80 points.

Tip-off between Utah and Cal is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. PT on Friday night.

“Whoever we’re going to play is going to be a tough matchup, and we got to grind through it,” Poeltl said.

k.brenneisen@dailyutahchronicle.com

@kbrenneisen