STANFORD, California — After discouraging pre-Christmas losses to rival BYU and No. 20 TCU brought the Utah men’s basketball team’s early-season momentum to a screeching halt, coach Craig Smith and his staff did a lot of thinking over the holiday break.

“Yeah, we were struggling in the beginning with our 3s, and me hitting that 3 obviously helped the team in a big way. You know, shoutout to my teammates for looking for me, and yeah, I hit the shot.” — Utah freshman guard Wilguens Exacte

“You do some reflecting and you look at a lot of things when you have a little bit of a break, and you think about your team,” Smith said after the Utes got back on track with a 58-43 win over California on Thursday night at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley.

One recurring thought Smith had while spending time with his family in his native Minnesota was that 6-foot-6 guard Wilguens Exacte needed more playing time. The idea turned out to be a good one as the freshman from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, logged 15 minutes against the Bears and was a catalyst in the Utes’ third Pac-12 win.

Exacte played 15 minutes and scored five points, including an absolutely huge 3-pointer with just over 13 minutes remaining that righted the Utes (3-0, 10-4) after Cal had trimmed a 27-18 halftime deficit to 33-31. 

Related
Wilguens Exacte Jr.’s journey from Montreal to Mexico prepared him for college basketball life in Utah

“Yeah, we were struggling in the beginning with our 3s, and me hitting that 3 obviously helped the team in a big way,” Exacte said. “You know, shoutout to my teammates for looking for me, and yeah, I hit the shot.”

Later, as Utah was pulling away, Exacte made a pair of free throws to remain perfect (12 for 12) as a Ute from the charity stripe this season.

Prior to Thursday’s extended minutes, Exacte had played only two minutes in the loss at BYU and four minutes in the loss against TCU at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City.

“It felt good,” he said. “Credit to coach (Smith). He believes in me. We have been talking a lot. I am very happy that I got the minutes I deserved, yeah.”

Exacte is now averaging 3.3 points and 1.4 rebounds in 10.8 minutes per game. His limited minutes have been a bit of a surprise after he started the season so well, scoring 12 points in 21 minutes in the opener against Long Island University and netting 10 points in 19 minutes in Game 2 against CSU-Bakersfield.

Smith said coaches have never lost faith in the graduate of the NBA Academy Latin America, but until Thursday the timing and matchups were not optimal.

“We believe in him,” Smith said. “His minutes have obviously gone down the last couple of games. He has got to perform. … He has been practicing well, and we needed to find more time for him to be on the floor. I just thought he had a really good look to him tonight, and he gave us great minutes. He is such a physical specimen. He is an unbelievable worker. I thought he was outstanding tonight.”

Exacte should see a similar amount of playing time Saturday, as the Utes turn their attention to another big, rugged, physical team — Stanford.

Tipoff at Maples Pavilion is at 2 p.m. MST and the game will be televised by the Pac-12 Network.

“I just thought he had a really good look to him tonight, and he gave us great minutes. He is such a physical specimen. He is an unbelievable worker. I thought he was outstanding tonight.” — Craig Smith on Wilguens Exacte

The Cardinal (0-3, 5-8) were picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll, but so far have been a disappointment, and coach Jerod Haase is getting close to being on the hot seat in his seventh season on the Farm.

While the Utes were holding on to first place in the Pac-12 Thursday night, Stanford was losing 73-70 to Colorado as the Buffs’ K.J. Simpson scored a career-high 31 points at Maples. Simpson made a layup with 18 seconds left to give CU a 71-70 lead and the visitors held on.

Spencer Jones led Stanford with 25 points and surpassed the 1,000 career points mark, the 50th player in Stanford history to accomplish that feat.

“Jones is playing at a high level for them,” Smith said. “They are just very, very big. They are very good defensively. They haven’t shot as well as I know they are capable of. So hopefully we can do that and win on the road again Saturday. Winning on the road is hard. Hopefully we can get another one.”

Assistant coach Tim Morris, a Stanford graduate, will have the scout, after Utah graduate Chris Burgess had the scout against the Bears.

Related
Analysis: Runnin’ Utes pack their defense, put the clamps on cold-shooting Cal to remain perfect in Pac-12 play
3 keys to Utah’s 58-43 win over California

Utah hopes history repeats itself, as it ended the regular season last year with a sweep of the Bay Area schools, beating Stanford 60-56 on Feb. 17 and following that with a 60-58 win over Cal on Feb. 19. That was Utah’s first Bay Area road sweep since 2018-19. Against Stanford last year, Branden Carlson and Both Gach had 13 points apiece and Rollie Worster and Gabe Madsen chipped in 11 each.

Utah’s defense came up big, as Stanford was held to one field goal in the final nine minutes.

“It’s great that we are 3-0. It is amazing, but it is over now,” said Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic, who had 11 points and two steals against Cal. “We had a bad experience last year with our first conference games. We started badly. We knew we had to change that. We gotta go think about (beating) Stanford now. We may enjoy it for a night, but that’s about it.”

Fewer than 1,000 people watched Utah beat Cal (announced attendance was 1,468) as students were away for the holiday break and Cal is one of the worst teams in college basketball this season. A similar scene is expected across the bay at Stanford, where announced attendance for the Colorado game was 2,640.

“Obviously their record isn’t what they want it to be. They have had a difficult non-conference schedule,” Smith said. “When you play on the road at this time of year, the students aren’t there. It is just a different vibe, right? But they are a veteran team, they have great size up and down the lineup.”


Utes on the air

Utah (3-0, 10-4)
at Stanford (0-3, 5-8)
Saturday, 2 p.m. MST
Maples Pavilion, Stanford, California
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: KALL 700 AM