How the offensively challenged Runnin’ Utes put together a defensive masterpiece to beat Fresno State
Utah contained one of the West Coast’s best big men, FSU’s Orlando Robinson, and ground out a 55-50 win in their final nonconference game at the Huntsman Center
Call it a rock fight, a slog, a defensive struggle or a game that set offensive basketball back a couple decades.
The Runnin’ Utes will refer to it as a victory, as welcome as any other win in this season of adversity.
Playing without star center Branden Carlson for the second-straight game, Utah willed its way to a 55-50 win over one of the Mountain West Conference’s better teams, Fresno State, on Tuesday evening at the Huntsman Center.
“Really proud of our guys, and obviously ecstatic to get that win going into Christmas break, and (get) a little bit of mojo. We needed it.” — Utah coach Craig Smith
“Really proud of our guys, and obviously ecstatic to get that win going into Christmas break, and (get) a little bit of mojo. We needed it,” said Utah coach Craig Smith.
Having faced the Bulldogs seven times in the past three seasons as Utah State’s coach, Smith had his team prepared for everything FSU tried on the offensive end.
“I just knew it was going to be this kind of game,” he said. “I know them inside and out, backwards and forwards, and that’s how they play.”
Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham, as defensive-minded as any coach in the land, appeared at halftime with his Rose Bowl-bound team captains and gave a little speech, exhorting fans to go see the Utes play Ohio State in Pasadena, California, next week.
He had to like what he was seeing when the other Utes were on the court. Fresno State was held to a season-low.
Marco Anthony led the Utes with 11 points, including a breakaway dunk with 48 seconds remaining that sealed the deal, and Lahat Thioune chipped in 10 as Utah (8-4) pretty much won its final nonconference game of the season on the defensive end.
Fresno State shot 33% from the floor and could never get on track offensively against a variety of Utah defenses.
The Runnin’ Utes weren’t much better offensively — they shot 48% in the second half to bring their game shooting percentage up to 39%.
“I mean, they are No. 8 in the country in defensive field goal percentage for a reason,”’ Smith said. “Obviously, it is hard to score on them.”
Fresno State’s Orlando Robinson was just one point short of his 18-point scoring average, but that doesn’t tell the story at all on how the Utes bottled up the probable NBA-bound star. He hit a 3-pointer and a rebound basket in the final 48 seconds to get close to his average, but was 6 of 14 from the floor.
The Utes started the game with Riley Battin on Robinson, but the 6-10 Thioune told a Utah assistant coach to let him have a shot at the 7-footer, and he delivered, with the help of just about everyone else on the team.
It helped that the Bulldogs, including Robinson, missed all kinds of easy shots in the second half that kept them from pulling off the upset.
“We neutralized them in the paint,” Smith said.
Indeed, both teams scored 18 points in the paint, a stat Smith would gladly have taken if told pregame that was in the offing. That’s because Utah played without its own 7-footer, Carlson, whom Smith said is very comparable to Robinson in terms of playing style and outside shooting ability.
Carlson is probably a better defender; Robinson might be better driving to the hoop.
“If you love defense, this game was a thing of beauty,” Smith said. “If you love offense, it was putrid.”
Fresno State won the rebounding battle 40-35 and hard 14 offensive boards, which it turned into 11 second-chance points, but Smith could live with that. The visitors had four offensive rebounds on one wild, crazy, possession alone.
“We just beat a good team with one five-man and one power forward,” Smith said. “That’s a hard thing to do.”
Smith was especially pleased with how the Utes refused to give up on plays — their hustle after getting beat on a high-low pass essentially forced Robinson into missing a bunny at the rim — and how they won more than their share of 50-50 balls.
That has been a problem against the better teams on Utah’s schedule, but not on this night in front of a decent crowd for a 5 p.m. tip. Announced attendance was north of 7,000, which isn’t entirely accurate, but there were fewer empty red seats in the lower bowl than there have been, with the exception of the BYU game.
Smith said the Utes “got better this week” after losing in the final minute at Missouri last Saturday in the absence of Carlson. The coach has said Utah’s problem of late hasn’t been offense. It’s been defense, and Tuesday night the Utes were honed in from the start.
“When we focus on the defensive end, good things happen for us,” Anthony said. “We did that tonight.”
Utah’s defense softened a bit with around six minutes remaining, and buckets by Isaiah Hill and Anthony Holland pushed FSU out to a 45-43 lead.
But Riley Battin and David Jenkins Jr. hit back-to-back 3-pointers to right the Utes — Jenkins’ triple came right in front of the Utes’ bench and was heavily defended — and Utah got stops on FSU’s next six possessions.
“We knew their players’ tendencies and we relayed those to our teammates,” said Anthony, a member of several of those Aggie teams that faced Fresno State last year and the year before.
In the first half, Fresno State heated up from beyond the arc midway through the first 20 minutes and moved out to a six-point lead.
The Utes went cold after Jaxon Brenchley’s 3-point play and would make one basket in their next 10 possessions to fall behind.
Lazar Stefanovic, making his second-straight start, led the Utes with seven at the break. But the Utes shot 31% in the first half and trailed 23-22 after 20 minutes.
“In 12 games, I thought that was Jaxon Brenchley’s best game,” Smith said.
Fresno State played without Kentucky/Arizona transfer Jemarl Baker, a 7.8 ppg. scorer. Jordan Campbell, who averages 9.5 a game, did not score in 17 minutes.