The Runnin' Utes improved to 4-1 at home (4-2 overall) Tuesday night against WAC opponent Fresno State in a 76-63 win. Coming off a two-game skid, Tuesday's win was crucial for the new team's growth and development, particularly as it heads off Thursday for their MWC/MVC challenge contest at Bradley on Saturday in Peoria, Illinois.
Leading scorer Will Clyburn opined that the victory was important and should give the team confidence going into only their second road game of the season.
"[The win] was very important for us. We stumbled for two games and a lot of guys kind of got down on themselves," explained Clyburn. "In practice, we just said it's not the end of the world, we've got to get back. I think we came back and played very well."
The Utes did indeed play well in facets of the game. For example, Utah is 4-0 when it has four players score in double digits, as they did again tonight. Will Clyburn (21), Josh Watkins (16), Chris Kupets(17) and Jason Washburn (10) were the four who carried the team offensively on the night.
As head coach Jim Boylen has stressed all season long, his team will need even contribution and even scoring from several players in order to have success. The statistics support that assertion and he discussed the topic in post-game interviews.
"We got a lot from a lot of guys, which this team has to do," said Boylen. "We had four guys in doubles and it's just what we have to do."
After two straight losses, the Utes got back to basics in practice, focusing on three things; defense, rebounding and cutting down on turnovers. In other words, "toughness plays" as Coach Boylen often labels them. The team came into the game with a different energy and focus and played with "grit and toughness" as expressed by every Ute coach and player post-game.
Although the Utes built a large lead, which reached 24 points at one juncture of the game, they relinquished it once again as Fresno State chipped it down to 13 very late in the contest.
With some things yet to resolve, the Utes will take away some very big positives from this victory. Utah had noticeably improved efforts from centers David Foster and Jason Washburn, which with their height, is necessary for this team's success. Foster responded with six rebounds, two assists and a block while Jason Washburn responded with 10 points and a career-best tying eight rebounds. The reinvigoration of the Ute frontcourt may well be the biggest development for the team thus far, with Clyburn and Josh Watkins demonstrating that they are consistent contributors.
From Antonio DiMaria to Chris Hines to Chris Kupets, someone usually does step up to pick up slack offensively. Tuesday night, it was Chris Kupets, who contributed a career-high 17 point effort.
Kupets has started to see more playing time and is getting more comfortable on the floor, having chipped in seven points in 15 minutes in the loss versus Oral Roberts. Juggling the line up somewhat, Kupets has been awarded minutes that belonged to Jace Tavita, however Jim Boylen added that he is looking for more overall toughness, offense and fewer turnovers.
"I've shrunk the rotation, and that's why Jace didn't play. Chris Kupets is a talented offensive player who has ball skills and can play the one or the two," said Boylen. "I compare him to [former Ute] Tyler Kepkay. Sometimes when you play for the team, good things happen for you. I thought he came in and played for the team, and good things happened for him."
"I just tried to come in and give the team toughness and grit. I was just trying my best to do whatever to help the team win," said Kupets. "We've been tough and gritty through practice and I just tried to turn that over to the game."
Kupets came off the bench with 21 minutes and provided a spark, but his increased presence on the court wasn't the only change to the lineup. Jay Watkins, Will Clyburn, Jason Washburn, Chris Hines and Josh Watkins comprised the starting lineup Tuesday night.
Boylen commented further on that lineup change and why he liked the shakeup. "I thought [Chris Hines] gave us a lift in the starting lineup with his defense and toughness," said Boylen. "I thought Kupets and his energy and the loose ball he dove on in the first seven minutes of the game was a big play for us. I've been asking this team to play with more grit and more toughness, and I thought we did that."
Again, the numbers don't lie and the Utes enjoyed advantages in several key categories that can help designate toughness or hustle. Utah out-rebounded Fresno State 48-33 and enjoyed the most offensive rebounds in a game in Boylen's tenure with 20. Utah also added 25 second-chance points to Fresno's ten.
The Utes had 38 points in the paint. Utah also had 14 points off of turnovers, just one more than Fresno. Fresno's bench outscored Utah's 30-21, but the Utes cut the deficit down significantly Tuesday night. Utah also committed 13 turnovers, a number the Ute coaching staff is willing to live with and does not feel is excessive.
As Utah aims to do every game, the team experienced growth and felt that the effort was better than perhaps the score suggested as the Utes missed too many shots in the first half, shooting only 30.8%. Acknowledging that his team has to knock those shots down, Boylen noted that the shots were there and available, which he sees as a positive sign.
At the end of post-game remarks, Boylen urged, "It was nice to see this team respond and grow. This team is still building and growing. We had new starters, new guys in the playing mix. We still have to figure it out, and we're trying. But we'll figure it out, so don't give up on us offensively just yet."