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How Utah basketball’s stifling defense led to a blowout win over UC Riverside

The Runnin’ Utes built a 48-13 halftime lead en route to a second straight win to start the season

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Utah Runnin’ Utes vs. UC Riverside Highlanders at Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, UT on Friday, November 10, 2023.

Bryan Byerly/Utah Athletics

Through the first two games of Utah basketball’s season, the team is living up to its Runnin’ Utes nickname.

For the second time during the season’s opening week, Utah’s suffocating defense facilitated the offensive end in an 82-53 victory over UC Riverside on Friday night at the Huntsman Center.

The Utes allowed the Highlanders to hit just 30.8% of their shots from the field, while Utah made 48.5% of its field goals in the blowout win.

The Utes, in particular, have been humming in the first halves of games through the first week of the season.

Utah got its offense working well early Friday behind a suffocating defensive effort, as the Runnin’ Utes held UC Riverside to 16.7% shooting in the first half, just four days after holding Eastern Washington to 26% shooting in the first half of the season opener.

“I think it’s just a mindset. We know we’re a good defensive team but it’s just having that mindset — the first half especially — that we need to shut these guys down. Things will flow for us offensively as we get some stops,” fifth-year center Branden Carlson said.

Utah coach Craig Smith credited the stingy defensive work from his team, in good part, to a solid week of preparation.

“When you defend like that, you’re never going to be perfect, but it’s a mindset. It’s a mentality. I thought we had two great days of preparation leading into the game where our guys in practice were very dialed in on the floor,” he said.

The coach added that the defensive effort showcased a complementary set of traits coming together — pride, toughness, communication and preparation.

“You could see it and feel it with our team this week,” Smith said.

The Runnin’ Utes’ mantra was especially true before the halftime break Friday, when they raced out to a 29-6 lead through the game’s first 11 minutes and cruised from there, as they hit 11 of their first 17 shots in eventually building a 48-13 halftime edge.

“(Playing lockdown defense) helps us get into transition and I think we can really run. That’s a strength of our team. When we get stops, we can really run it,” big man Lawson Lovering said.

That overwhelming effort on both ends of the floor didn’t translate as well to the second half for Utah, as the Highlanders outscored the Utes 40-34 in the final 20 minutes.

Carlson, the team’s unquestioned leader, said that the team needs to work on maintaining that level of defensive intensity in the second half.

“It’s just coming out with that same aggressive mindset, wanting to compete and doing that is really what it’s going to come down to,” Carlson said.

“You have a big lead, it’s always hard to want to come out and play with that same energy (you had) to start the game but you’ve really just got to focus in on that.” 

For the second straight game, though, the Utes were able to empty their bench with several minutes left in the contest.

Lovering, the Colorado transfer, scored a team-high 18 points on 7 of 11 shooting in leading five players in double-figures.

Carlson had 16 points, Cole Bajema added 13 (with a team-high three 3-pointers), Ben Carlson chipped in 11 and Keba Keita had 10.

Utah outrebounded the visitors 52-30 on the night, including 27-13 in the first half as the Utes held the Highlanders to primarily one-shot possessions in the opening 20 minutes — a key contributor to the lopsided first-half score.

That sets Utah up well for its next challenge — playing in the the Charleston Classic next week.

“We took care of business. We won at home,” Smith said of the Utes’ successful first week of the season. “I thought we got out of these games what we needed to — first of all, victories, but I thought we got better and we learned some things about our team.”

Three quick takeaways

Star of the night: In his second game as a Ute, Lawson Lovering had a solid stat line, finishing with a team-high 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists. He also was a team-best plus-34 in 22 minutes of action.

16.7%: Utah held UC Riverside to just 16.7% shooting in the first half in building a 48-13 lead at the break. The Utes, meanwhile, shot 54.8% in the first half.

“To hold a team to 13 points in a half, that is so difficult to do in Division I basketball, no matter who you’re playing,” said Smith, who credited the team for a couple days of great prep after the Utes’ opener.

12:43 mark, first half: Utah went more than seven minutes in the first half without missing a field goal, as the Utes hit their first seven shots.

The highlights

What’s next?

The Runnin’ Utes, after a 2-0 start to the season, will head to South Carolina next week to play in the Charleston Classic.

Utah will play three games in four days at the Classic, starting with a Thursday night matchup against Wake Forest (7 p.m. MST, ESPNU). The Demon Deacons (1-1) lost 80-77 at Georgia on Friday night.

The Utes will face either No. 7 Houston or Towson in their second game. The rest of the eight-team tournament field includes Dayton, LSU, North Texas and St. John’s.