SALT LAKE CITY — Ian Martinez picked off a pass like a defensive back reading the eyes of a quarterback before intercepting a pass and taking the ball back for a touchdown.
All Martinez needed was an inch and the ball was his before sprinting down the floor and launching for a one-handed dunk.
The USC defender trailing him could do nothing but extend an arm behind him in an effort to maybe disrupt the play — wishful thinking. Martinez was too quick and the dunk too definitive.
It wasn't the defining play of Utah's upset win over No. 19 USC Saturday night, but it was important nonetheless. It was simply one of many plays the freshman made to showcase his emergence as an up-and-coming talent for the Utes.
"We've seen some great glimpses," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said about his emerging freshman. "He was instrumental tonight. His energy and length and athleticism — he got out in passing lanes and got a big steal for us and a dunk, got some other deflections; he's long and he's cat-like quick."
In only 15 minutes of action, Martinez made his mark, and not all of it was shown on the final stat sheet.
The freshman from Heredia, Costa Rica, checked into the game after sophomore guard Rylan Jones sustained a serious injury to an already injured right shoulder that held him out the rest of the contest while being attended to in the locker room. Utah trailed by 8 and looked to be at the beginning of an expected rout against the conference's top team coming into the game.
But Martinez battled and fought in every opportunity he got against the Trojans. On one end of the floor, he provided a block as one of a handful of defenders that limited USC to 37% shooting from the field; on the other, he forced his way into the post, got up a bucket with three USC defenders surrounding him and then made the and-one free throw to complete the 3-point play.
On another offensive series, he recorded two offensive rebounds — Utah had only seven all game against one of the tallest teams in the country — amid several USC defenders and kicked out the final rebound to a wide open Alfonso Plummer for an easy corner 3-pointer, his second in a one minute stretch to cut USC's lead to two (22-20).
His "energy," as Plummer would describe after the game, turned the game on its head and gave Utah a fighting chance going into the halftime break. That energy extended to his teammates who saw a young freshman that didn't know he should lose to a USC team that featured arguably one of the top picks in the upcoming NBA draft in Evan Mobley.
In short, his energy was infectious and led to a second-half rally that began with an 8-0 run by Utah before USC head coach Andy Enfield was forced to call a timeout in an attempt to squash the shift in momentum. But Utah only got better and pushed the lead up to 13 points with 12:40 left to play behind the veteran play of Timmy Allen and Plummer.
USC reeled off a quick 5 points to cut Utah's lead to eight as the Trojans looked to go on a run, but Martinez came in clutch again and hit a 3-pointer to push the lead back up to double digits and to show USC that Saturday night was one for the Utes.
"He always brings energy, always is prepared," Plummer said. "He doesn't care about minutes, he doesn't care about scoring, he doesn't care about individual stats, he just cares about winning. He always comes up and is always ready and tries to help the team with the best way possible. I respect that on this team.
"He's going to be really good and he's got a lot of potential. I've got a lot of respect for him. He's always got the energy, he's always got the desire to learn. I know he's gonna be good next year or probably two years."
Martinez is showcasing his talent when Utah needs it the most, and he's being relied on more as the season progresses. Even as a high-end four-star recruit out of high school, the college game is competitive and it takes time for most freshman to get acclimated to the system. But Martinez has started to become more comfortable and there's much more ahead for the young talent.
"We throw a lot at guys, we teach a lot on both ends of the floor," Krystkowiak said. "And this is something where I think when we can find a little bit of rhythm for him and some confidence, he stepped up and did what he's capable of doing — staying in the moment and trying to win the next play. Never at this level can you put your guard down.
"He's making some really good progress for us and has stayed in — it hasn't been easy. But he's stayed engaged and he's getting better."