Saturday afternoon at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Jim Boylen's Utes faced in-state foe Weber State, which fell to 1-2 in a sloppy, frantic affair saddled by the quick-whistles of the officiating crew. Through the course of the game, 50 personal fouls were called and 75 free throws were attempted.
Although Weber State shot just 28.1% in the first half, they were very much in the game at halftime, down only 34-40. Utah committed 13 turnovers in the first half and made just one of nine three point shots, allowing Weber to remain in the game. In the second half, the Utes began to build their defensive persona and count on it to create easy transition opportunities.
"I thought our defense, at times, was as good as it's been since I've been head coach," said Boylen of his team's defensive effort. "Our three-point defense was great."
Jay Watkins re-emphasized the team's defensive mindset as it pertained to the Utes' 16-4 run to open the second half. "It was just defense, being tough and playing aggressive. We told coach that we were going to come out and lock-down and follow the game plan," Watkins said. "It was a great game plan and the team followed it to a t."
Weber guard Damian Lillard led all scorers with 28 points, after being held to just nine in the first half. The Utes' game plan called for heavy defensive pressure to stop Lillard, and until late in the second half, they were successful.
"Damian Lillard might be the best player we face all year, up until this point he has been," said Boylen of the Weber guard. "He may even be the best guard in the West. We used six different players to defend him tonight, something that was a point of emphasis."
Free throw attempts remain a focus for fourth year head man Jim Boylen, and the Utes are starting to earn a living at the charity stripe in that mold. Jay Watkins and Will Clyburn in particular have taken on that mantra as both are aggressively attacking the rim, resulting in multiple free throw opportunities. Watkins attempted 10 free throws and Clyburn attempted 12. As a team, the Utes shot 86.8% from the line, a dramatic improvement from recent efforts. Utah's 40 conversions at the line marked the second most in school history.
Whether or not the in-state rivalry aspect of the game gave it an almost tournament electricity to it, rather than a pre-Thanksgiving feel. The change of tempo played right into the hands of the Utes, who regained control after a sloppy first half to build on the lead.
"I liked the way we came out of both halves at home this week. Against two quality teams we've come out with a lead at the half, and pushed the lead up," Boylen said. "I think that's a sign of a team that's learning and growing."
Will Clyburn led the Utes again with 27 points and nine rebounds while three other Utes scored in double figures, marking the third straight game that four Utes accomplished that feat. Josh Watkins poured in 16 points and a career-high six assists, Jay Watkins sparked the team to an early jump, finishing with 12 points and six rebounds and Chris Hines contributed 11 points in his best effort of the season.
According to Boylen, the Utes' goals for the game were to be at 38 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent from beyond the three point line. His team eclipsed the goal for field goal percentage, finishing at 23-42 (54.8 percent), but fell short in three point percentage, hoisting up 17 three pointers and converting four for a 23.5 percent figure.
Like Weber's Lillard, Clyburn started slow going into halftime with just eight points before exploding with 18 in the second half. Clyburn attributed the turn-around to his teammates. "My teammates gave me the ball and I was aggressive," explained Clyburn. "We moved the ball pretty well as a team, and I kept getting it and I kept being aggressive."
Going into the Utah State at Logan this week, the Utes will take away a lot of positives from their victory over Weber State, but still have areas of concern and improvement; chiefly rebounding and turnovers. The Utes have not struggled mightily with turnovers thus far this season, but committed 20 versus the Wildcats.
Some of that, however, can be attributed to Weber State and their defensive efforts, which Coach Boylen praised. "What I talked about for this game was that Weber does a good job of tipping balls. They have quickness, they have great hands to the ball," Boylen said. "In the first half, we'd talked about it, but we weren't ready for it, we got in gaps and turned it over. They reached in and got the ball and they do an unbelievable job of that. I don't think we adjusted to it very well."
In their best effort to date, the 3-0 Utes look to take on Utah State in their toughest contest yet of the season on Wednesday. So far the staff has done a good job of evaluating areas of concern and addressing them between games and Saturday's effort was no different. The Utes continue to build on their defensive momentum, and seem to be able to rely on different players to step up on a nightly basis.
Last game, Antonio DiMaria contributed 10 points, and Saturday Chris Hines played that role, also adding 10 points. Wing Shawn Glover had a better game, adding nine points as well. With such scoring distribution, the Utes are proving difficult to defend, something that should serve them well going into Logan.