Bouncing back from a damaging loss to Sacramento State last week, the Runnin' Utes redeemed themselves with a 57-46 victory to improve to 2-1 on the season.
Seeking progress from game to game, head coach Larry Krystkowiak got some Wednesday, kicking off the home tournament with a nice win that helps assuage the sting of last week's unexpected loss.
After a dismal first half of play, Utah found itself down 22-29 after shooting just 32 percent from the field and 28 percent from three. The Ute backcourt struggled with both penetration defense, and attempting to penetrate on offense, moving the Utes away from their game plan, which is perennially to pound the ball inside.
"In our meeting before the game, Coach said 'let's pound it inside'," acknowledged junior point guard Glen Dean. "We weren't attacking the gaps like we did in practice."
Krystkowiak expanded on the topic.
"We didn't do a very good job of attacking their zone. In the second half we used some pick and roll and tried attacking the gaps on the dribble," said Krystkowiak. "There was one possession in the first half where we had 10 or 11 passes, and the ball never touched the floor. At some point against the zone, it's about getting the ball in the paint."
The slow, drag-out tempo of Idaho State, a signature of that club, produced the exact result it wanted: a low-scoring affair and the Utes moving as if grounded in cement.
"I thought [Idaho State] did a really good job of slowing it down in the first half. We were really stagnant," observed Krystkowiak. "We shot ourself in the foot on several possessions where we had one guy on various possessions that wasn't in the right spot, and wasn't thinking about what we were trying to do. So we ended up standing around."
Keeping the Utes in the game throughout the lag in the first half was center Dallin Bachynski, who started his first game Wednesday. Kicking off his starting gig in style, Bachynski scored 11 points in the first half, and grabbed five rebounds. Bachynski crafted together his second double-double of the season with a career-high 22 points and 16 rebounds. The sophomore transfer from Southern Utah University shot 9-15 from the floor and 4-5 from the line.
According to Bachynski, starting altered his mind-set slightly versus coming off the bench.
"Knowing I was going to start, I knew I had to come out strong in the game, both on the glass, as well as on the defensive end. It turns out I was able to come out offensively, tonight, too," explained Bachynski. "I feel like me giving energy allows others to feed off of that, and just kind of defeat the other team a little bit."
Having ridden out the storm in the first half, the Utes came out in the second one a different team.
"It was a really big 20 minutes for us, and it really showed the character of our team. [It showed] that we're not going to give up, we're going to keep fighting," said point guard Glen Dean, who scored 11 points on the night. "We came out of halftime with the mentality that we have nothing to lose, and everything to prove."
Down by as much as nine early in the second half, the final twenty minutes were indeed significant for the Utes, as they out-scored Idaho State 32-7 over a roughly fourteen minute span, which included a 14-0 run midway through the half. To his delight, Krystkowiak credited the Ute defense with the run, a positive considering he is trying to make defense a Utah trademark.
"We have a term that's called a kill. If you get a kill, it's three consecutive kills in the second half," he explained. "We got five kills at different points in the second half, and that makes things a little easier."
Things did get easier for Utah, who thrived off of the defensive energy and easy offensive transitions that stem from stops. For the game, Utah held the ISU offense to just 30.6 percent shooting for the game and 12.5 percent three-point shooting. In the second half, the Bengals shot just 19.2 percent from the field and 0-9 from behind the arc.
While Dean provided some offensive spark in the second half to help Bachynski offensively, freshman Dakari Tucker was the defensive spark the Utes were looking for in the second half.
"I thought Glen hit a couple of big threes that ignited us," said Krystkowiak. "I thought Dakari [Tucker]gave us a great lift off the bench defensively with his length, and got a lot of deflections and some turnovers that allowed us to get out in the fast break."
Utah out-rebounded Idaho State 41-32, with a +7 margin in the second half, and finished with 13 turnovers, 13 assists, three blocks and five steals overall.
Freshman Jordan Loveridge, who has struggled in the last two games, chipped in seven points, but came alive on the glass to finish with a career-high 12 rebounds and four assists.
Center Jason Washburn came off the bench for the first time in recent memory and added six points and pulled down two rebounds in seven minutes of play.
Of the shake up in the starting lineup, Krystkowiak was hesitant to read too much into the decision.
"We're not at a point where we need to set five guys right now. We just want to dangle the carrot in front of some guys and say if you produce and get after it in practice, your reward may be to start," explained. Krystkowiak. "I think it may be more important to the players than it is to the coaches who starts. The old adage is it's more important who's one the floor at the end of the game."
Krystkowiak went on to say that he wanted to "tinker" with things in terms of lineup, and that depending on match-ups, either center could start.
Utah will practice Thursday and return to host Central Michigan, who knocked off Wright State earlier in tournament play, on Friday at 5 P.M.
The Utes remind fans that their Thanksgiving Food Drive will continue through tournament-end on Saturday. One can of food equates to free admission to both games each day, and Krystkowiak has pledged to donate $1 to the Utah Food Bank for every can of food donated.