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Hunter Erickson has elevated his game offensively, and at a perfect time

Utah Utes guard Hunter Erickson (0) is blocked on the shot by Colorado Buffaloes center Eddie Lampkin Jr. during the quarterfinal game of the 2024 Pac-12 tournament at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 14, 2024.
Utah Utes guard Hunter Erickson (0) is blocked on the shot by Colorado Buffaloes center Eddie Lampkin Jr. during the quarterfinal game of the 2024 Pac-12 tournament at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

Utah coach Craig Smith often refers to players who have an excellent game as having a “different look” to them that night.

One of those players who earned that description in the Runnin’ Utes’ NIT win over UC Irvine late Tuesday was guard Hunter Erickson.

His confidence has shined through in recent games.

In the victory over the Anteaters, Erickson scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting, while going 3 for 3 from 3-point range. He also had a rebound and an assist.

“I thought Hunter Erickson was really good again tonight,” Smith said during his opening statement following the game, “and I thought he was excellent defensively. He’s a bulldog out there and he’s played you know, what the last four games, he’s played very well and he’s just had a different look to him. That was fun to see.”

Fellow guard Gabe Madsen, who scored 16 in the win over UC Irvine, joked that Erickson’s play can partially be tied to his recent haircut, then he got serious and explained how having Erickson elevate his game offensively helps on that end of the floor.

“I think he’s just, we all know what he’s capable of. And it was just a matter of time,” Madsen said. “You know, I think you see now that he’s starting to get that confidence going and it really changes us for sure. It’s just nice to have him come in and be able to knock down shots and space the floor for us.”

On Tuesday night, Erickson hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 40-40 as part of a 12-2 run to end the first half that helped Utah get back out in front for good.

Just a few minutes earlier, he made a 3-pointer that gave Utah a 34-31 lead.

His final 3-point basket of the night came in transition, and it gave the Utes a 63-48 lead to cap a quick 7-0 spurt.

“We had a real heart to heart, I’ll tell you that, after the Oregon State game,” Smith said. “You know, I don’t know, maybe that had something to do with it. But this is the Hunter Erickson we recruited where the guy, he knows how to play, he can play.”

In the aforementioned Oregon State game, Erickson didn’t score and had three turnovers in just nine minutes of play back on March 7.

Since then, he’s been playing with a “different look,” one that is noticeable.

Erickson has averaged 10.8 points over the team’s last four games, while scoring in double-figures and shooting above 50% in the past three.

Prior to this recent stretch, the former Salt Lake Community College and BYU guard only had two games this season where he scored in double figures.

“He’s always been pretty good defensively, but now he’s just playing and confidence is an amazing thing,” Smith said. “You know, it’s hard to give someone confidence, you try to provide it but you gotta go do it.”

The timing of Erickson’s surge during postseason play has also been advantageous for the Utes. Even though he’s listed as a senior on Utah’s roster, Erickson still has a year of eligibility remaining, thanks to the free COVID year.

During Utah’s two-game stretch at the Pac-12 tournament last week, he scored 11 and 13 points, respectively, in a win over Arizona State and a loss to Colorado. He shot 9 of 17 from the floor combined in those games and 5 of 12 from 3-point range.

“I know what he can be and he’s finally playing like it. He’s had spurts, but his role has kind of changed throughout the year a little bit,” Smith said.

“He’s always been pretty good defensively, but now he’s just playing and confidence is an amazing thing. You know, it’s hard to give someone confidence, you try to provide it but you gotta go do it.”

Utah coach Craig Smith on Hunter Erickson

Utah’s coach noted that some personnel changes on the guard line throughout the season have also impacted his playing time and what’s been asked of him.

“Early on, he kind of knew what he was and then that multi-year transfers were able to play, so then Deivon (Smith) came in and remember Rollie (Worster) was still playing at that time, so then his minutes kind of got down,” Smith said. “Then of course Rollie gets hurt, so then his minutes kind of went back up. He’s just kind of had different roles. You learn to play with different guys.”

Erickson’s ability to knock down shots, both from long range and attacking the hoop like he showed during the win Tuesday night, adds another dimension offensively to his already well-known capabilities as a facilitator.

“He’s been playing well and he’s another ball handler for us on the floor. It’s not always a huge strength of our team besides obviously Deivon, and so when you play those two together, now you have two guys that can make some plays consistently off the bounce game,” the Utah coach said.

“He’s gotten better that way certainly. But we need that kind of spark and he’s been very, very good.”

It’s a spark the Utes hope will continue when they host Iowa in the NIT’s second round this weekend.

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Utah Utes guard Hunter Erickson drives past Arizona State guard Frankie Collins, left, and Arizona State Sun Devils forward Akil Watson, right, during the game first round of the 2024 Pac-12 tournament at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 13, 2024.