At 13-5, New Mexico came in to the Huntsman Center most likely expecting a win, but instead ran into the buzz saw that was Utah's three-point shooting and dropped to 13-6. In the first half alone, Utah (9-10) attempted 12 three-pointers and sunk seven of them. Four different players scored from three.
True freshman J.J. O'Brien led the Utes with 10 points in the opening half, with sophomore Shawn Glover right behind with nine points. Usual scorers Josh Watkins chipped in seven, while Will Clyburn had only three points, having gotten into early foul trouble.
As is typical of the Runnin' Utes, they had an opportunity to increase their 45-28 lead into halftime, as the shot and game clocks had a 2.3 second differential. After holding the ball, then missing two shots, center Jason Washburn pulled down a third offensive rebound for that possession, but could not get a shot off before the shot clock expired. The result of the clock mismanagement for the second week in a row was an unlikely near mid-court three pointer by Kendall Williams, which cut the lead from 17 to 14, sending the Lobos into the locker room with some semblance of momentum despite the 45-31 score.
As is not typical of the Utes, they came out slow after the half, allowing New Mexico to get within nine points on sloppy play, and missed shots. A pivotal three-pointer by Josh Watkins at the 13:35 mark ignited the Utes back to a 15 point lead. David Foster also helped spark the run with aggressive interior defense, and a couple of well-timed offensive rebounds which he converted into easy points, including the stuff at 11:45 off a J.J. O'Brien miss.
Utah looked this time as if it might not ease off the pedal as Watkins and O'Brien continued to apply offensive pressure, while Foster continued to apply pressure on the defensive side of the ball. Steve Alford's team would not quit, however and made a 10-0 run, pulling back to within 8 points around the 3:15 mark.
"Teams make runs on us when we turn [the ball] over. I thought we didn't do a good job playing with the lead because we turned it over," said Boylen. "We have to learn how to do that. That's the next step."
Josh Watkins agreed that the team is taking steps, and the next step is definitely concentrating on finishing games, and learning how to play with a lead and not get complacent.
"We've had so much to learn, and we're doing that. I think that's the next thing for us," Watkins said. "TCU is a tough team on the road, and that's the next true step. Getting to .500 is going to be huge for us, so we just have to play as a team and take those next steps together."
The Utes showed patience as the game clock wound down, passing up several wide open shots in favor of running the clock down, and forcing New Mexico to foul in what may be a sign of Utah's maturity.
Head coach Jim Boylen has consistently banged the drum of "we will break through" over the course of the last month. When asked post-game if the two-game win streak, a road win over Wyoming and a solid home win over 13-5 New Mexico was the breakthrough he was looking for, Boylen stopped short of calling a two-win streak a breakthrough.
"I don't know if a two-game winning streak is a milestone. I don't think I'm ever going to say that. We're thankful for the wins," Boylen said. "I don't know if it's a breakthrough; it's a stepping stone. I keep telling my guys that we've got to keep climbing. We're going to try and keep climbing."
Will Clyburn, the Utes' usual leading scorer had a quiet night, potentially out of rhythm after sitting much of the first half due to foul trouble, finished with eight points and six rebounds. It was freshman J.J. O'Brien's best outing of the season, and his career as he finished the night with 18 points, and 10 rebounds, notching his second collegiate double-double.
"I've been preaching that [O'Brien] could be a special player, and I've tried to be humble about it, but he's going to be a really special player," said Boylen. "[I'm thankful] that he's healthy, because he's a difference maker."
O'Brien was a little more humble about his performance, while referencing his time missed due to injury early in the season to mold his perspective.
"It was really frustrating being out, it was a big setback but I knew my opportunity would come," admitted O'Brien. "Tonight, I was just trying to be aggressive. Driving to hoop is one of my strengths and it was there, so I went with it. I've just been working hard to find a way to help my team, and today it was me."
Point guard Josh Watkins took the game over, leading all scorers with 22 points. Shawn Glover stepped in for big minutes, and much needed scoring in place of primary offensive threat Clyburn, notching 10 of his 12 points in the first half on 4-7 three-point shooting.
"We're starting to do things we weren't doing back when we lost those seven games [in a row]," said Watkins. "We've learned from all that, we've watched films and saw what we didn't do, and now we're doing them. Things like playing as a team, especially."
Boylen couldn't agree more, and stated his pleasure in his team's 14 assists; a factor that has been at the top of the fourth-year coach's list of things to improve throughout the season.
"I thought we moved the ball very well. I thought we shared it, that's been a point of emphasis for us. We've had to continue to learn how to play in this system," said Boylen. "See, I think the pass creates the made shot, not the shooter. I think when you share it a guy trusts. He's saying 'I trust you with it'. I think we're doing a good job with that. Our game goal was 18 assists but 14 assists on 27 shots is good for us."
Boylen has continually discussed the need for his team to establish a reliable third scorer, and Glover seems to have answered that call with a string of consistent offensive efforts.
"We found our third scorer in Shawn Glover, and he also had three assists," said Boylen. "He's a young, developing guy who is improving. That's big for us."
Boylen discussed a few key factors that impacted the win; in addition to improved ball distribution and movement, is the production the Utes got out of the center position, which, in each of the Utes' 10 losses, was severely lacking. In Wednesday's game however, Ute centers Jason Washburn and David Foster combined for 11 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. Foster's seven points represented a season-high in scoring and his emergence after nagging injuries is as important as anything to Utah's team, according to Boylen.
- Utah's 82 points is the most scored this season in a conference game.
- Utah's 45 first-half points is the most New Mexico has allowed since October, 2008.
- Wednesday's game marks the first time Utah has shot over 50% from three this season.
- Wednesday's game marks the second game in a row where Utah got a double-double performance (combined) from its center performance.
- Utah shot 50.9% from the field on the night and 52.6% from three.