SALT LAKE CITY — Andre Miller, Michael Doleac, Alex Jensen, Britton Johnsen, Hanno Mottola and other players from Utah’s 1997-98 team that reached the national championship game were in the Huntsman Center Saturday night for a 20th anniversary reunion.
The current Utes, though, didn’t need any of their help on the floor. They took care of business with a 77-43 victory over California.
“It’s one game. I think we’re really committed to playing defense. That’s probably been the result,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “It feels good. It feels like we’re playing the game the right way. It seems like it’s energetic.”
Krystkowiak added that if the Utes truly focus on getting stops, it makes the game fun. The offense, he continued, just takes care of itself.
“I’m a firm believer when you get stops in the game, the other team does not guard you as well,” Krystkowiak said. “And it gives you some opportunities offensively.”
Defense set the tone as Utah capped a sweep of the Bay Area schools this week. The Utes defeated Stanford 75-60 on Thursday. They improve to 15-9 overall and 7-6 in Pac-12 play with the victories.
“It was a good weekend for the Utes to think about some defense, and we had some real positive things happen for us offensively through that,” Krystkowiak said.
David Collette finished with a game-high 18 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the field. Justin Bibbins and Sedrick Barefield contributed 15 and 13 points, respectively, on a night when the Utes had 24 assists. Tyler Rawson led the latter with eight.
“We just did such a good job, I thought, sharing the ball,” said Krystkowiak, who noted that Rawson had seven assists in the first half and the Utes had just four turnovers.
The latest triumph was decided early. After missing its first four 3-point shots, Utah caught fire by hitting 6 of 9 in a decisive run in the first half. The Utes used the long ball to erase an early deficit when Bibbins completed a four-point play. Rawson also hit a 3-pointer in the 10-0 outburst that put Utah ahead for good at 14-6.
Additional 3-pointers followed as Utah’s lead eventually swelled to 40-21. The Utes also got quite defensive, forcing 11 Cal miscues over the first 20 minutes. Utah capitalized with a 17-4 advantage in points off turnovers.
It contributed mightily to Utah’s 40-24 halftime lead. The Utes shot 57.7 percent (15 of 26) from the field, while holding the Golden Bears to just 39.1 percent (9 of 23) accuracy. Bibbins and Collette sled the way with 12 points apiece for Utah.
Rawson said the Utes did well making an extra pass and making a play for a teammate.
“The guys did a nice job sharing the ball and making shots,” Krystkowiak said.
Utah was never seriously challenged in the second half. Defense set the tone. Cal wound up making just 16 of 53 shots by game’s end. Darius McNeill was the only player to score in double-figures for the Bears. He had 10 points.
“We just tried to shift our focus away from the offense and just focus, really, on the defense — on creating opportunities in transition,” said Bibbins, when finished with three steals. “Once our defense is flowing we play way more freely on offense.”
The game capped a busy day for the Utes. They attended the funeral of Jon M. Huntsman Sr. in the morning and then took the court with the return of the 1997-98 team adding a buzz to the atmosphere in the arena.
“It’s been a long day,” acknowledged Bibbins. “The funeral was nice, but it’s always tough making that shift from going to a funeral and then having to lock into a game plan and realize you have a game that same day.”
Bibbins explained, however, that once the lights turn on and the ball goes up that all goes away.
“You’ve just got to play basketball," he added.
Rawson noted it was a great honor for have the former Utes in attendance.
“It was special to see them and definitely an inspiration for us to play well,” he said.
The Utes are on the road this week. They’re at Washington on Thursday and Washington State on Saturday.
“The biggest thing is just doing what we do, This week was great for us,” Rawson said. “We didn’t play our best basketball at Colorado (Feb. 3) and we just went back to the basics of playing hard, playing together and playing smart.”