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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Colorado forward Evan Battey goes to the hoop as Utah center Jayce Johnson defends as Utah and Colorado play in the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Unless it makes a late-season run and wins the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas in March, the Utah basketball team is going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row.

Thanks to a 78-69 win over Colorado Sunday, the Utes edged above .500 where they’ve hovered all season (9-8, 3-2), but they face the prospect of falling back if they aren’t able to win on the road this week with games at Stanford on Thursday and Cal on Saturday.

With a team that starts two freshmen and the top two reserves being a freshman and a sophomore, coach Larry Krystkowiak has been trying to use this season as a learning experience for his young squad, focusing on different aspects of the game for extended periods.

“It’s always been imperative in our program that we’ve got to keep getting better as the year goes along,” he said. “We’ve got to practice with a purpose and we’ve got a game plan — here’s what we’re going to get better, and the guys continue to buy into it. I’d like to think our best basketball is ahead of us.”

" It’s always been imperative in our program that we’ve got to keep getting better as the year goes along. We’ve got to practice with a purpose and we’ve got a game plan — here’s what we’re going to get better, and the guys continue to buy into it. I’d like to think our best basketball is ahead of us. "
Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak

Krystkowiak explained that his team has been having mini “training camps” for one or two-week periods where the coaches can focus on certain aspects of the game.

“We’ve had a lot of different things — we pretty much ran the gamut,” he said. “We had a month where we focused on our offense. As of two weeks ago, it’s been a big commitment to defense.”

Against Colorado, the Utes defense was as good as it’s been all season in the first half when they held the Buffaloes to just 19 points on 30 percent shooting and forced 11 turnovers while getting nine steals. During one two-minute stretch, the Utes came up with five steals on consecutive possessions, which resulted in three breakaway dunks.

However in the second half, the Utes let off the gas somewhat and didn’t force a single turnover as Colorado scored 50 points on 50 percent shooting and made the Utes a little nervous when they cut a 28-point lead to 10 with 3:28 left.

“Defensively, the first half was tremendous and then the first 10 minutes of the second half was really solid too,” Krystkowiak said. “But they hit some shots and we let our guard down. We got away from what we did typically on defense to build us that lead.”

Krystkowiak said the three areas the Utes have been concentrating on lately have been transition defense, guarding the basketball and not allowing opponents second shots.

“We’ve done much better and our numbers have improved dramatically,” he said.

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UTE NOTES: After the two road games in California this week, the Utes will return home for games against Oregon and Oregon State the following Thursday and Saturday . . . Freshman forward Timmy Allen recorded his first double-double Sunday with 21 points (on 6-of-9 shooting) and 10 rebounds. He also tied for the team-high honors with four assists and three steals . . . Krystkowiak was disappointed with his centers Jayce Johnson and Novak Topalovic shooting a combined 0 of 7 from the field. Johnson did make 4 of 6 free throws and grabbed eight rebounds with two blocked shots, while Topalovic had four rebounds and a pair of blocks . . . The Utes shot better in the second half than the first half, 46.2 to 44.8 percent, but were much worse from 3-point range shooting 11.1 percent compared to 61.6 percent . . . Announced attendance Sunday was 10,372, but actual attendance looked less than half of that . . . The Utes will play Colorado in Boulder on March 2 in another 4 p.m. game.