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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Utah Utes center Jayce Johnson (34) shoots over Florida A&M Rattlers forward Ifeanyi Umezurike (24) during a basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Ever since getting stitches for cuts to his eyebrow and head in a loss to Washington last month, Utah center Jayce Johnson has changed his look. The 7-foot junior is sporting a headband, earning him the nickname “Jackie Moon” by those in the program.

All kidding aside, though, Johnson isn’t playing like the Will Ferrell character in the 2008 movie “Semi-Pro.”

Far from it, as a matter of fact.

Johnson has grabbed double-digit rebounds in four straight games and five of Utah’s past six outings overall.

“Jayce has been doing a good job rebounding, one rebound every three minutes roughly. He’s finishing better, slowing down, providing a great presence for us in the post,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “I think his conditioning has improved, too. Earlier I don’t know that he could play those number of minutes, but he seems to be getting up and down the floor and staying real locked in.”

Johnson, who saw 63 minutes of action over last week’s two games in Los Angeles, is evolving into a regular double-double kind of guy.

In last Wednesday’s 77-70 win at USC, he finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds. On Saturday, he came close with 10 rebounds and nine points in Utah’s thrilling 93-92 victory at UCLA. The previous week, Johnson had 13 rebounds and 11 points against Oregon. He followed it up with 10 boards and nine points in a loss to Oregon State.

Johnson acknowledged that recording double-doubles feels great. However, that’s not his primary motivation.

“It’s not really my focus. It’s just getting out there and guarding the ball and whatever comes with it,” Johnson said. “I have a goal of 15 (points) and 10 (rebounds), but I’m not trying to force anything. I’m getting what I get when I get it, and just going with it.”

It’s worked well, as of late. Johnson has helped Utah (13-10, 7-4) move into a second-place tie in the Pac-12.

“We need to have all parts firing,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re getting some performance and production out of our bigs and it’s good to have.”

Johnson is averaging 7.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. The Southern California product has upped his numbers every season since enrolling early and redshirting out of Santa Monica High School in January of 2016.

" Jayce has been doing a good job rebounding, one rebound every three minutes roughly. He’s finishing better, slowing down, providing a great presence for us in the post. "
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak

“I feel like I’ve gotten better,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m getting more minutes and more playing time has really helped me get my confidence and the ability to get the ball and get good shots, get open shots.”

Johnson, who averaged 4.0 points and 4.3 rebounds as a freshman and 5.5 points and 5.4 rebounds as a sophomore, insists he isn’t trying to be the next Jakob Poeltl for the Utes. He said it’s more about making his own mark, doing his own thing and showing everyone what he can do.

“It’s Jayce,” Johnson said. “It’s no one else.”

Johnson, who was slowed by a foot injury before the season began, is coming on strong in Pac-12 play. He’s the second-leading rebounder with a 9.9 average in conference games.

“I try to leave it all out there because you don’t want to know at the end of the game you didn’t give it everything you’ve got,” Johnson said. “I give it everything I’ve got.”

Johnson has showed a level of toughness as well. He hasn’t missed a game after needing six stitches in his eyebrow and three or four more in his head following an injury against Washington on Jan. 10.

“It wasn’t hard at all. I’ve gotten (stitches) before,” Johnson said. “I used to have to glue it together with some super glue and stuff.”

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Repeated cuts in his eyebrow, he noted, just happen in basketball. The latest additions led to the “Jackie Moon” moniker. Johnson said the comparisons were especially applicable when his hair was longer.

As for the headband, Johnson may keep it now that everything has healed.

“I’ve been wearing it and I kind of just felt comfortable,” he said. “It does kind of keep the sweat out of my face.”

The look, as it’s turned out, has also been part of an ongoing ensemble of success — one that even Jackie Moon could appreciate.

• . • . •

Arizona (14-10, 5-6)

at Utah (13-10, 7-4)

Huntsman Center

Thursday, 7 p.m. MST


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