LAS VEGAS – Kyle Kuzma had a meeting with Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak after the sophomore forward went through a four-game funk.
The gist of it: Play hard and get back to the basics.
He did and the Utes are headed to the Pac-12 semifinals.
Kuzma broke out of a scoring slump at just the right time, missing one shot while scoring 23 points to help lift No. 12 Utah to an 80-72 victory over Southern California on Thursday night in the Pac-12 quarterfinals.
“This past week in practices I made an extra focus on trying to play hard and trying to do all the little things right,” Kuzma said. “I think that was it. It was just good karma. The past few games I’ve been pretty nonchalant, casual, and it’s rubbed off within practices and stuff. So I think that was it for me.”
The second-seeded Utes (25-7) started hitting shots from the opening tip, making 10 3-pointers while shooting 61 percent to earn a spot in Friday’s semifinals against No. 24 California.
Kuzma and Pac-12 player of the year Jakob Poeltl were the catalysts, setting up the Utes’ inside-out game with their scoring and passing.
Kuzma made 11 of 12 shots and had seven rebounds after scoring 15 points on 6-of-16 the previous four games combined. Poeltl had 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
“Between Jakob and Kuzma, I thought they took care of the rim,” Krystkowiak said. “We can be pretty good.’
The Trojans (21-12) had a hard time stopping the Utes and only played well offensively in spurts, leaving them unable to complete the comeback.
Jordan McLaughlin led USC with 24 points and Julian Jacobs added 16.
“We didn’t play great tonight, but we played hard enough, especially in the second half to come back,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.
The Utes closed the regular season strong, winning their final seven games to finish a game behind Oregon for the Pac-12 title.
One of those wins came on Feb. 21, when Utah knocked off USC 80-69 in a dominating performance by Poeltl (29 points, 13 rebounds).
The Trojans earned a rematch by crushing UCLA 95-71 to win three straight games over their rival in the same season for the first time since 1942.
The rematch with the Utes started with a series of offensive counterpunches, both teams filling up the basket in rapid succession as the lead changed hands 14 times.
Utah landed the last blows, scoring the final eight points to take a 41-33 halftime lead.
The offenses continued to click in the second half.
USC hit four of its first seven shots to close the gap early in the half.
It still wasn’t good enough to keep up with the Runnin’ Utes.
Relying on its big-man duo of Poeltl and Kuzma, Utah worked its inside-out game with precision, setting up Jordan Loveridge for a pair of 3-pointers than put the Utes up 60-47.
The Trojans weren’t ready to give in just yet.
Nikola Jovanovic hit a 3-pointer, McLaughlin scored on a three-point play and USC started closing in around the Utes defensively, pulling within 69-67.
Utah held on after the Trojans’ spurt. Brandon Taylor hit a 3-pointer with just under 2 minutes left to put the Utes up six and USC couldn’t make up the ground.
“Their players, like Kuzma, stepped up and had a big game against us and that’s what happens,” Enfield said. “You try to take something away or maybe their first or second option and if the third or fourth option beats you, then you lose.”
USC: The Trojans had just five turnovers. … Scored 15 second-chance points on 12 offensive rebounds.
Utah: Utes are 14-0 when they have four players score in double figures. … Loveridge had 13 points and six assists. … Utah had 22 assists on 31 field goals.
USC has to wait for Selection Sunday to see if will get an invite to the NCAA Tournament.
Utah faces No. 24 California in Friday night’s semifinals.