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Koufos, Fesenko step up, stand tall for Jazz

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Utah Jazz center Kyrylo Fesenko (44) battles for a rebound with<BR>   the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki during Friday night's game.

Utah Jazz center Kyrylo Fesenko (44) battles for a rebound with
the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki during Friday night’s game.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Starting center Mehmet Okur was out with back spasms. Power forwards Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap were both in street clothes.

Where would the Jazz turn to for some inside presence? Easy question: rookie Kosta Koufos and second-year center Kyrylo Fesenko.

"They did a great job," said coach Jerry Sloan of the two young big guys. "Sometimes they get a little bit confused at what we are doing, but that was OK because they were alive and active. When you have that, you have a chance every time you step on the court."

The pair of youngsters took advantage of their time on the court in the Jazz's 97-88 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night. All they did was turn in career highs in points, and they thoroughly outplayed the opposing big men.

Koufos got the start and played 29 minutes. He scored 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting, besting his previous high of 12. He pulled down eight rebounds, had two assists, two steals and a blocked shot.

"Koufos is an example of a kid that has really worked hard every single day," Sloan said. "He deserves to play just because of his work habits and what he puts himself through every day. We all want him to do well; sometimes we push him a little too hard at times. He'll be just fine."

The rookie from Ohio State, however, was quick to deflect the credit for his outstanding game.

"I have great teammates that know how to distribute the ball," said Koufos. "I am just fortunate to be part of the Utah Jazz."

As for starting and knowing he was going to have to play some big minutes for the short-handed team, Koufos was prepared.

"I felt no pressure," said Koufos. "I just wanted to play, and play within myself. ... I wanted to stay focused and work hard. My teammates are great, so I just have to try to bring it every day."

Perhaps even more surprising than Koufos torching the Mavericks was the play of Fesenko. In his nearly 16 minutes on the court, he had a career-high eight points on 4-of-5 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and blocked three shots.

"It always feels good when you play good and your team tells you that you're actually playing good. (It was) probably like the happiest minutes of my life," said Fesenko.

It was quite a turnaround for the big center from Ukraine. In the Jazz's last outing, he was a non-factor as he drew the ire of his coach in four uninspiring minutes of action.

"Fes played the other day, starting the ball game, and he didn't play very well. But I tell you, he's worked a little harder," added Sloan. "Somewhere along the line, you learn how to work. I can't do the work for him. He's got to do the work so he has a chance to get better."

Besides just working harder, Fesenko also said a big part of the improvement was his mental focus.

"I was totally concentrated," Fesenko added. "I tried to not think about anything else happening. I was just concentrating on the game. I tried to not make any mistakes and just think defend, hustling and rebounding."

For the Jazz to have the type of season they envisioned coming in, they obviously are going to need the help of Boozer, Okur and Millsap. But with the type of night their young big men showed, they may have found a way to stay afloat while waiting for the injured to return.

E-mail: mblack@desnews.com