SALT LAKE CITY — You hear it often in basketball, how good defense leads to good offense, which in turn leads to victories. The Utah basketball team got all of the above Thursday night at the Jon M. Huntsman Center with a decisive 75-60 victory over Stanford.
Coming off one of their poorest games of the season at Colorado, the Utes produced one of their best of the year in defeating a hot Cardinal team that was just coming off a 35-point win over Oregon when it shot a season-high 62 percent from the field.
In evening their Pac-12 record at 6-6 and improving to 14-9 on the season, the Utes dominated a Stanford team that was in the top four of the league at 7-4 coming in, by playing strong defense and also shooting 50 percent from the field.
The Utes mostly emphasized defense as coach Larry Krystkowiak told his team in a pre-game meeting, “Let’s not worry much about the offense, let’s hang our hats on getting some stops. And lo and behold, we attacked, shared the ball and it was fun. The offense took care of itself.”
The Utes defense was superb as it held a Stanford team that was second in the league in field goal percentage at 49.3 percent to just 35.8 percent on the night. Not only that, the Utes came up with a season-high 10 blocked shots (three each by David Collette and Jayce Johnson) and also made six steals.
“It’s a crazy thing in basketball . . . if you really focus on playing defense, there’s a correlation and sometimes that team doesn’t guard you as hard because you kind steal their thunder,” said Krystkowiak.
Offensively the Utes were led by guard Justin Bibbins and Sedrick Barefield, who scored 18 and 17 points, respectively, but even Barefield gave credit to the defense.
“Getting stops had a lot to do with it,” said Barefield. “Before the game, me and Justin were talking and said, 'if we just focus on the defensive end we will be free-flowing on the offensive end.' That has to be our M.O. — to really lock in on defense.”
That was certainly the case in the first half when the Utes held the Cardinal to just 30.8 percent from the field while shooting 55.2 percent themselves. The halftime lead was just 40-28, however, as the Cardinal stayed in the game thanks to 9 of 11 from the free-throw line because the Utes had some foul trouble with all three big men getting a pair of fouls and Chris Seeley three. Seldom-used Beau Rydalch had to come in for the last couple of minutes to spell the Utes.
In the second half, the Cardinal cut the lead to single digits at 53-44 after which the Utes put the game away with a 16-3 run to increase the lead to 69-47 at the 7:30 mark. The Utes were eventually able to clear their bench as 14 players saw action on the night.
As well as the Utes played, Krystkowiak didn’t necessarily think it was his team’s best game of the year until a reporter told him that U. athletic director Chris Hill said it was the team’s best all-around performance of the season.
“I would never disagree with my boss,” Krystkowiak said. “If that’s what he said, that’s exactly how I feel.”
About the only negative on the night was that Utah was outrebounded 38-31, the 10th time in 11 league games that’s happened. Also Collette, who was a perfect 6 for 6 from the field for 13 points, was called for a technical for beating his chest after a defensive play late in the game.
“I got into trouble for showing emotion,” he said afterward. “Apparently there’s not emotion in basketball anymore.”
Next up for the Utes is Cal at home Saturday at 7:30 p.m. as they try to move up in the Pac-12 standings. Krystkowiak still believes his team can make it up to fourth place and get a first-round bye in next month’s Pac-12 tournament.
“I haven’t given up hope,” he said. “Until somebody tells me we can’t get a bye in Vegas that’s going to be our goal. There’s still a chance.”