Utah pulled out of a dogfight, defeating Wyoming 80-70 to break a five-game losing streak on Wednesday in Salt Lake City at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. With the victory, Utah also swept the season series with Wyoming, having defeated them 68-51in Laramie in mid-January.
Wyoming's leading scorer, guard Desmar Jackson lead the Cowboys once again with 17 points. Wyoming had their shots, but failed to capitalize, shooting 28-66 (42.4%); just above their season average of 40.9 percent, but shot just 3-10 from the three-point line in the first half before heating up in the second half to improve to 31.6 percent for the game, also above their typical 28.3 percent season average from long range.
In what turned out to be an extremely physical contest, Wyoming would commit 26 personal fouls, but the competition seemed to draw out a nastier, tougher side to the Utes that head coach Jim Boylen had been hoping to see, and attempting to coax out of his team all season.
Sloppy play ruled the opening half, with the teams committing a combined 15 turnovers (Utah 8, Wyoming 7), still Utah lead the way through a choppy half on the shoulders of point guard Chris Kupets who threw in 12 points. Will Clyburn quietly added 10 points in the first half, followed by Josh Watkins with seven. Utah went into halftime with a 34-32 lead, something head coach Jim Boylen pointed out as a key factor in his team's victory.
"I thought the last three minutes of the first half were huge. We were down by five, or seven at that time," recalled Boylen. "We took the lead with a 7-0 run to lead at halftime. I thought that was a big spurt for us to come in with a lead at halftime, and not be down."
Both Watkins and Kupets fueled the Ute surge, with Watkins hitting a crucial three to tie the game up with 1:34 left in the half, which was sandwiched between two Kupets jumpers, who accounted for the other four points in the 7-0 run.
"[Kupets] has been such a good practice guy. He's learned how to practice well, he's developing in practice, and he carried it to the floor," said Boylen. "He was doing a lot of talking out there, I thought he was leading. I thought tonight was a big step forward for him as a leader."
In the second half, however, Utah cleaned up its act, committing just three turnovers the rest of the way, and finishing with 11 for the game; an improvement over their average of 14.3 per game. Wyoming, however narrowly out-rebounded Utah 37 to 33, but the Utes were down by a significant margin heading into the home stretch before hauling in key rebounds late in the game; something they had not done in several prior losses late in the game.
Despite the late rebounding surge, Utah was badly burned on the offensive glass as Wyoming grabbed 16 offensive rebounds to Utah's 8 in a still-worrisome category, a certainty once again confirmed by the 26 second-chance points Wyoming had as a result of the offensive rebounding surplus over Utah.
Utah came out ahead, however, in several of what head coach Jim Boylen terms "toughness" categories; or statistics that indicate a team's level of commitment and mental fortitude. Some of those include points scored in the paint, which Utah eked out a slim margin; 32-28, points off turnovers (19-13, Utah).
Perhaps most central to the Ute victory were the free throws, something Utah keyed in on early in the season in order to have success. In past games, Boylen set goals of attempting a minimum of 25 free throws per game, something that hasn't happened in some time, as teams have determined to take away Utah's driving and penetration lanes.
Wednesday, however, thanks in large part to the wide open court oft left by the trapping Wyoming defense, Utah attempted 32 free throws, successfully converting 23 for a 71.9 percent average on the night, slightly up from their 68 percent average on the year.
While turnovers improved, Utah's shooting cooled off, but still shot 48 percent from the field in the second half, and 52 percent for the game. JUCO transfer Chris Kupets sparked the Utes off the bench and led all scorers with 20 points, while Josh Watkins and Will Clyburn each finished with 19 points.
Clyburn left the game with an undisclosed foot injury around the ten minute-mark of the game, but not before he pulled down six rebounds to go with his 19 points. Freshman J.J. O'Brien contributed 10 points, marking the seventh time four or more players scored in double figures. Utah improved to 6-1 when four or more score in double digits.
Clyburn's absence, and Utah's victory in spite of that was a big turning point for Boylen and his team. As Clyburn is Utah's leading scorer, and Mr. Clutch when Utah has pulled out close victories, other players needed to step up in order to secure Wednesday's victory that allowed Utah to improve to 11-15 and 4-8 in the MWC.
"I'm proud of our group to win that game without him down the stretch," exclaimed Boylen. "That's a heck of a win without him."
Ute center David Foster continues to heal, improve, and contribute in big ways for his team, and achieved a career-high 13 rebounds to go along with four points and three blocks. After having suffered nagging injuries early in the season, Foster's defensive presence and rebounding continue to be a welcome site for Boylen and staff.
As Utah visits the Lobos of New Mexico in the infamous "Pit" Saturday, Ute center David Foster and could not underscore the importance of getting a victory Wednesday, and the much-needed confidence boost heading into hostile territory.
"[Getting the win] is extremely important, confidence is such a huge key to the game," explained Foster. "To snap that losing streak helps a lot, so we just have to keep building. We snapped our last losing streak against Wyoming, and we just kind of fell back. We can't let history repeat itself."
Through another tough losing streak, Jim Boylen reiterated his belief in his team, pointing to the progress made by several individual performances.
"Overall, I'm pleased with where this team's going," confirmed Boylen. "I think we finally have a win to show for our development."
No official statement has been released as to the injury to Will Clyburn, however more information and an announcement is expected Thursday.