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New coach Craig Smith’s debut a successful one in Utah’s rout of Abilene Christian, but where was everybody?

Fewer than 2,400 fans showed up to the Huntsman Center to watch the Runnin’ Utes use rebounding and defense to smother ACU in the season opener

Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith, wearing a suit and tie, reacts to a foul call against his team
Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith reacts to a foul call against his team during the game against the Abilene Christian Wildcats at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Rebounding and defense returned to the Jon M. Huntsman Center on Tuesday night, just as new Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith promised they would when he accepted the job in March.

Using a crushing 55-29 advantage on the glass and holding their opening-night opponent to 39% shooting, the Runnin’ Utes eased past Abilene Christian 70-56 to start off the Smith era on the right foot.

“In so many ways, it was a dream come true,” Smith said of his debut in red.

About the only downer for the Utes was that only 2,355 fans bothered to show up to welcome in the new coaching staff and seven new faces — eight if two-time transfer Both Gach ever gets approved to play by the NCAA — in the first official game since 10-year coach Larry Krystkowiak was fired for, among other things, not being able to pack the Huntsman Center as in days of yore.

The 6 p.m. weeknight start and a relatively unknown opponent certainly contributed to the small crowd, but at least now Utes fans have a standard to surpass. With a decent nonconference home schedule that includes BYU, Manhattan, Bethune-Cookman and Sacramento State, let’s hope word gets out that the college basketball season has, indeed, begun.

Even at Utah.

Up next is Sac State on Saturday night, which should allow Utah’s football fans to watch the game at Arizona and still have time to make it to the Hill for Round 2.

As for Tuesday night, there wasn’t much to nit-pick about.

Sure, Utah committed 20 turnovers, but that was expected against a Wildcats team that prides itself on helter-skelter defensive pressure and coming up with steals that lead to easy buckets.

“We did turn it over, but we avoided those catastrophic turnovers,” Smith said. “It was a physical, rugged game. We knew it was going to be like that.”

Both teams shot 39% from the field.

The difference was rebounding. Enjoying 22 offensive rebounds, which they turned into 23 second-chance points, the Utes got eight rebounds or more from four guys — clearly an emphasis after being at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 last year in almost every rebounding category.

“We got better playing this game,” Smith said. “To get this win was big for us. ... Rebounding has been a huge emphasis. At the end of the day, you are what you emphasize.”

UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr. led the way with 15 points — he will emerge as the Utes’ leading scorer this season, barring injury or something totally unforeseen — and 7-footer Branden Carlson added 14 points and nine boards before fouling out.

Had Utah made more bunnies — that problem plagued them last year, too — it would have won by 20, maybe more.

“For the most part, we had really good looks,” Smith said. “We missed some chip shots at the rim.”

Smith delivered on his promise to play a lot of guys early, using 12 players in the first half after starting the same five who started in the secret scrimmage against Wyoming and the exhibition win over Westminster: Carlson, Jenkins, Rollie Worster, Riley Battin and Marco Anthony.

Carlson picked up his second foul, controversially, on a drop step to the bucket with 9:03 remaining and played only nine minutes in the first half.

Jenkins and Worster combined for 21 points in the first half, and the Utes led 34-27 at the break.

A 27-15 rebounding advantage in the first half was key, with Utah getting 10 second-chance points in the first 20 minutes.

“It was a good momentum swing like that, getting our first win,” Jenkins said.

Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic showed well in the first half while Carlson rode the pine, grabbing five rebounds and scoring five points. Mahorcic finished with 11 points and eight boards, having dropped about 20 pounds since arriving in Salt Lake City a few months ago.

“Dusan, I thought, was very, very good for us,” Smith said.

He kept it up in the second half, adding another tough rebound basket and generally knocking around everyone inside with his superior girth and weight.

Immanuel Allen led ACU with 13, but no other Wildcat had more than nine as Utah took away its bread-and-butter — steals and fast break buckets.

“I thought we really settled in in the second half (after leading 34-27 at the break),” Smith said.

Worster, who will be the primary point guard until Gach joins the club, and perhaps even after, turned in a workmanlike game befitting a bearded fellow from Montana. He committed just one turnover and had six assists in 37 minutes, while adding 12 points.

“He really controlled the game for us,” Smith said.

Then there was Battin, who vowed to improve his rebounding during the offseason and apparently has done just that, grabbing 10 caroms in 29 minutes to go with eight points and a couple assists.

“Riley is such a determined individual,” Smith said.

The coach screamed “hey” at the top of his lungs when he entered a dead-quiet interview room, breaking the silence and startling everybody else in the room. Suffice it to say, Krystkowiak never did such a thing, even after big Pac-12 wins or a victory over BYU.

“What an exciting day for the Runnin’ Utes and for all of our guys and our staff,” the former USU coach said. “It was so great to be back in the Huntsman. I want to thank the fans for coming out and supporting our guys.”