Analysis: Runnin’ Utes pack their defense, put the clamps on cold-shooting Cal to remain perfect in Pac-12 play
Utah might have left its shooting touch in Salt Lake City, but defense is the heart of Craig Smith’s team in 2022-23 and it showed up Thursday night in the Bay Area
BERKELEY, California — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith likes to say that “defense travels” when it comes to trying to pick up road wins in college basketball, and at no time in his year and a half at the helm was that more evident than on a rainy late-December night in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In other words, if you are going to San Francisco, be sure to …. pack the defense.
That’s what the Runnin’ Utes did in front of a sparse post-Christmas crowd of 1,468 at Haas Pavilion, holding off the woeful Cal Bears 58-43 when Utah’s offense was presumably back in Salt Lake City enjoying some holiday leftovers.
“The bright side is we held them to 43 points. That is hard to do. I don’t care who you play, or when you play. To do that, that is hard. Defense travels. So, super excited about that.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.
It was the fewest points a Utah opponent has scored in a Pac-12 game since Feb. 10, 2018 when Cal managed just 43 at the Huntsman Center, and fewest allowed by the Utes in a road game since Feb. 19, 2015 at Oregon State, when the Beavers got just 37.
“It is always a little bit difficult coming off Christmas break,” Smith said. “… But first of all, it is a win, and we are 3-0 in Pac-12 play (after winning only four league games last year), with two of those wins on the road and the other against Arizona.”
This one came courtesy of Utah’s defense — assistant coach Chris Burgess had the scout — which has been a present force the entire season.
The Utes are No. 5 in the land in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 35% shooting on the year.
Cal, which fell to 0-3 in league play and 1-13 overall and is probably the worst Power Six team in the country, shot 34% from the field (15 of 44) and committed 13 turnovers.
But don’t be fooled, the Bears welcomed back Kentucky/Texas transfer Devin Askew, who had been averaging more than 18 points a game his past five games before a minor injury, and were coming off a confidence-building first win.
However, Utah’s Marco Anthony shut down the well-traveled guard, as Askew got off only three shots and scored just seven points.
“The bright side (to a mediocre offensive performance) is we held them to 43 points,” Smith said. “That is hard to do. I don’t care who you play, when you play. To do that, that is hard. Defense travels, so super excited about that.”
Indeed, Utah shot just 40% itself (21 of 53) and was a frosty 3 of 19 from 3-point range. The Utes went 0 for 9 from deep in the first half, missed their first 11 3-point attempts and nearly blew a nine-point halftime lead with a slow start to the second half when they made their first shot (a 15-foot jumper by Branden Carlson) and then promptly missed their next six.
“We knew it would be hard to win on the road,” said Lazar Stefanovic, who had 11 points to tie Carlson for team-high scoring honors. “You gotta be tough, you gotta play 40 minutes and you gotta be able to play defense.”
Said Smith: “I love how we guarded.”
Anthony added nine points, while Ben Carlson had seven, including a big dunk in the first half.
“Offensively, I thought there was some really good (things) and some not so good,” Smith said. “We didn’t turn it over, that was a bright spot (Utah had just eight turnovers).
‘Obviously we didn’t shoot it well from the 3. I don’t think we took bad shots. The ball wasn’t going in the hole, and sometimes that happens.”
With about one-fifth of the arena cheering them on when Cal’s students were away on semester break, the Utes went 13 of 15 from the free-throw line and got five more rebounds than the home team, which was actually coming off a rare win (the Bears walloped UT-Arlington before Christmas for their first win).
A few of those fans were specifically cheering for Stefanovic, and he rewarded them by greeting them after the game.
“They were yelling my name and (speaking) my (Serbian) language and they are from Serbia,” he said. “I had no idea (who they were). … They were a big support tonight.”
Although the Utes led 27-18 at halftime, the second half wasn’t the walk in Golden Gate Park that the final score indicates it was.
Cal got within three on two Askew free throws with 15:57 left in the second half, and within two when Joel Brown scored with 13:40 left.
“I thought early in the second half, for sure (shot selection was shaky),” Smith said. “That first media timeout wasn’t pretty in our huddle, but to the credit of our guys, they showed self-awareness. Nobody was pointing fingers. They manned up to it and figured it out.”
A couple of freshmen led the way off the bench, as Keba Keita made a nifty hook shot to beat the shot clock and kept alive an offensive possession that ended with a Carlson jumper, and Wilguens Exacte Jr. hit a huge 3-pointer after Brown’s bucket to ignite a 13-0 run that salted the game away.
Exacte had five points, a rebound and an assist in 15 minutes, while also being strong defensively.
“It felt good,” Exacte said. “Credit to coach. He believes in me. We have been talking a lot, so I am very happy I got the minutes I deserved.”
Smith said he gave Exacte extended minutes because the Canadian has been practicing well and because he “had a really good look to him” before the game.
Utah’s bench outscored Cal’s bench 22-14.
“We got to be able to find more consistency out of our bench, is what I am saying,” Smith said. “And tonight we went with Wil and I just thought he gave us great minutes.”
The Utes travel across the San Francisco Bay to play at Stanford on Saturday afternoon; Cal hosts Utah’s traveling partner, Colorado, that same day.
The Buffs edged the Cardinal 73-70 in Palo Alto Thursday night.