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Utes rebound to win NCAA tourney opener over Fresno State

DENVER — Utah rebounded and then some from last week’s lopsided loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. The Utes opened NCAA Tournament play with an 80-69 victory over Fresno State Thursday night in the Pepsi Center.

Although displeased that his team gave up 28 points on turnovers, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said he was really proud of the guys — noting that they shot a high percentage (54 percent), outrebounded the Bulldogs (38-15), had a lot of contributions overall and were pretty good defensively.

“We managed to come back a resilient team,” Krystkowiak said.

The Utes (27-8) advance to face Gonzaga (27-7) in the round of 32 on Saturday. The Bulldogs defeated Seton Hall 68-52 in the late game.

Utah moved on despite turning the ball over 20 times and blowing a 15-point lead. The Utes offset things with a dominating rebounding performance that featured center Jakob Poeltl outboarding the Bulldogs by himself, 18-15. Fresno State’s tally was matched by Utah’s final total on the offensive glass.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” acknowledged Krystkowiak.

Winning an NCAA tourney opener, though, is something the Utes have now done in back-to-back seasons. They reached the Sweet 16 last year.

The first step in another successful run featured a balanced attack. Lorenzo Bonham led Utah with 17 points. Poeltl, Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor each finished with 16 as the Utes snapped Mountain West champion Fresno State’s nine-game winning streak.

“They competed at a very high level,” said Fresno State coach Rodney Terry. “We give them a lot of credit for doing what they did today.”

The Bulldogs didn’t go down without a fight. They rallied from a 44-33 deficit in the second half by going on a 15-3 run. A 3-point shot by Julien Lewis gave them a 48-47 edge — their only lead in the game — with just over 10½ minutes left to play.

Instead of calling a timeout, though, Krystowiak decided to let the game continue.

“I just don’t like calling timeouts after a team takes the first lead because then I think they get to enjoy some of the momentum in their huddle,” Krystkowiak explained. “Plus, we don’t need to think about it. It wasn’t like we needed to make a lot of adjustments. We just needed to stop throwing the ball away and play like a team.”

The decision proved to be a good one. Utah regained control with seven straight points as part of a pivotal 19-2 run. By the time it was over, the Utes had built their biggest of the game — at 66-50 — with 4:16 remaining. The Bulldogs never drew closer than eight points the rest of the way.

“I think our defense really triggered it,” Bonam said of the pivotal swing.

Utah jumped out to a 5-0 advantage to open the game and eventually built a pair of 15-point leads in the first half. Fresno State missed seven of its first eight shots during the early outburst and was unable to cut the gap back to single digits over the remainder of the half.

Rebounding proved pivotal throughout. Utah won the battle of the boards 26-8 over the first 20 minutes. Poeltl paced the effort with 10.

Seven players scored as the Utes led 33-22 at the break. Bonam topped the team with eight points. Other notable contributions in the first half included four assists from Taylor and three steals by Loveridge.

“In the first half I thought we came out and we were ready to play and pretty dialed in,” Krystkowiak said.

Email: dirk@desnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer