1 of 37
Silas Walker, Deseret News
Utah Utes forward Donnie Tillman (3) dunks the ball against the USC Trojans at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Although the Pac-12 standings are a jumbled mess, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak had a simple plan for the Utes entering the final two games of the regular season. It involved defense, what else?

“If we’re not thinking about ways to try to get stops this weekend, then we’re probably thinking about the wrong things,” Krystkowiak said.

No shortcuts, he explained, and no easy way out.

“We need a lot more sense of urgency and energy throughout the course of the game.”

For the most part, Krystkowiak got what he wanted Thursday night in the Huntsman Center as Utah defeated USC 83-74.

“It’s good. I thought we were pretty darn solid,” said Krystkowiak, who was pleased the Utes limited the Trojans to just seven 3-point shots. They came in averaging more than 12 the past five games.

The Utes (16-13, 10-7) trailed only three times — at 2-0, 4-2 and 12-10 — en route to sweeping the season series with the Trojans. Most importantly, they are now in sole possession of third place with one game left to play — Saturday at home against UCLA (5 p.m., P12N). The top four teams earn a first-round bye in next week’s conference tournament in Las Vegas.

Utah took a giant step toward that end by defeating the Trojans. The Utes did so despite playing without starting center Jayce Johnson, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. Novak Topalovic started in his place and grabbed four rebounds in the pivotal first half.

Sedrick Barefield set the pace with six boards and four assists over the first 20 minutes. Utah held several sizable statistical advantages over USC at the break — points in the paint (22-10), second-chance points (12-0), fast-break points (9-0) and rebounds (18-12).

“Our focus was to just come out and not wait. We’ve had a hard time with coming out with the right intensity at home,” Barefield said. “And it was something we wanted to fix, so we just tried to come out of the gate ready.”

The Trojans drew no closer than five points when play resumed. The Utes eventually extended their lead to 66-50 midway through the second half. They pulled away with a 17-6 run that included three 3-pointers by Barefield, two baskets by Timmy Allen and scores from Topalovic and Parker Van Dyke.

By game’s end, Utah had five players score in double figures. Van Dyke led all scorers with 20 points. Timmy Allen finished with 19, while Barefield added 17. Both Gach and Donnie Tillman contributed 10 apiece.

“It was done collectively. I wrote on the board where we needed a bunch of warriors,” Krystkowiak said. “We had one of our guys down and Jayce has grabbed the lion’s share of our rebounds this season and I think everybody kind of took a little responsibility on themselves to fill in some of those gaps.”

Utah wound up with a 32-23 rebounding edge and a decisive 17-1 margin in second-chance opportunities.

23 comments on this story

The Utes, who have now record double-digit victories in Pac-12 play for five straight seasons, are in prime position to earn a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tourney for the fifth consecutive year. A win over UCLA would clinch it. A loss could lead to a cloudy picture. A logjam in the standings has Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA one game back of the Utes at 9-8. Washington (15-2) and Arizona State (11-6) are in front of them. The Bruins come to Salt Like City on the heels of a 93-68 setback earlier in the evening.