Aside from a slow start and a technical foul rarely called in an exhibition game, new Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith liked what he saw Thursday night as college basketball — and fans — returned to the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
As expected, the Utes buried neighboring Westminster College, an NCAA Division II school, 87-51 in the unofficial start of the season. It begins for real on Tuesday when Utah hosts Abilene Christian.
After watching about 35 minutes of stellar basketball, Smith thinks the Utes are close to being ready for the opener, which will test them far more than the Griffins were able to Thursday.
“I thought we got out of it what we wanted to get out of it,” Smith said.
The Utes shot 51.5% from the field, held Westminster to 33.3% and every player that dressed saw action.
“I do feel good about where we are at,” Smith said. “It was great to play in front of fans. Thanks to all the fans that did come out.”
As expected, the Utes started holdovers Branden Carlson and Riley Battin inside, and Utah State transfers Rollie Worster and Marco Anthony and UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr. outside.
Freshmen Gabe Madsen and Lazar Stefanovic were the first players off the bench, followed by two more returnees from Larry Krystkowiak’s 2020-21 team, Lahat Thioune and Jaxon Brenchley.
No player played more than 24 minutes — Anthony’s 23:40 was the high — and Madsen led the Utes in scoring with 16 points after a late flurry of 3-pointers.
“It was definitely nice to see the ball go in, for sure,” Madsen said.
Walk-on Eli Ballstaedt, who barely got off the bench last year, scored five points in the first half alone, in eight minutes.
“That dude is an elite shooter, right?” Smith said of Ballstaedt.
Utah looked a bit shaky early as Smith tinkered and the Griffins delivered their best shots while they could.
A couple 3-pointers by Westminster’s Reme Torbert staked his team to an 8-2 lead.
Utah misfired on five of its first six possessions before settling in. The Utes grabbed their first lead on a jumper by Anthony with 11:15 left in the first half and rolled from there.
Jenkins hit back-to-back 3-pointers and fed Carlson for a dunk midway through the first half, and highly prized freshman Stefanovic nailed a 3 to give the Utes a 35-16 lead with two minutes left in the first half.
Carlson led the Utes with nine points in the first half, in 11 minutes. No other Ute played more than 11 minutes in the half as Smith used 11 players. That rotation will certainly tighten on Tuesday, when Utah plays host to 2021 NCAA Tournament entrant Abilene Christian.
“I thought we were a little sticky with the ball on offense, but that last 10 minutes, we really got it rolling,” Smith said.
About the only interesting development in the second half came when Jenkins stuck a 3-pointer in a defender’s eye, then let him know about it almost immediately. He was given a technical foul, and a seat beside Smith on the Utes’ bench.
“I just got caught up in the game,” Jenkins said. “It won’t happen again.”
Smith didn’t say much to Jenkins for the taunting, but assistant coach DeMarlo Slocum, who came with the sharpshooter from UNLV, certainly did,
“He told me, ‘You gotta be better than that,’” Jenkins said.
Thioune made a nice jump hook in the second half and seems headed to more playing time in Smith’s regime than he was in Krystkowiak’s. He had a game-high eight rebounds in 11 minutes.
“Lahat has come a long ways,” Smith said. “I like our group of centers.”
Madsen hit back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers late in the second half, showing a quick trigger and a nice touch. The Cincinnati transfer reportedly also played well and shot well in the secret scrimmage against Wyoming last month.
“Once we got comfortable and got some stops, the offense got going,” Madsen said.
All 13 Utes who dressed got in the game. Walk-on Jack Jamele didn’t dress, nor did transfer Both Gach as he awaits a ruling from the NCAA on his eligibility appeal as a two-time transfer.
Smith said Wednesday that Gach “has handled everything like a pro. And there’s a lot of things obviously going on behind the scenes, as to where he’s at. Certainly, we don’t know. But he’s been a pro’s pro through this whole thing.”
Smith said he has no idea when the ruling will come, but time is running out.
“We just gotta be ready to roll when that time comes,” he said. “We still have a little bit of time here. You always hope for the best and prepare for the worst and that’s where we are at.”