The University of Utah gave its basketball fans a rare doubleheader to tip off the 2023-24 season on Monday night.
The Utes came out victorious in both games, easily distancing past their visitors on what ended up being an overall successful night on the Hill.
What stood out from a double dose of winning at the Huntsman Center to open the regular season?
Utah men 101, Eastern Washington 66
Rollie Worster’s aggression on both ends
Senior point guard Rollie Worster helped Utah shake off some mid-first half lethargy on offense, and in the process had himself one of his best offensive nights as a Ute.
The Runnin’ Utes ended up turning a 12-10 lead into a 30-12 edge with an 18-2 run, and from there, Utah cruised.
Worster was all over in an 8-0 spurt in the middle of that run. After Eastern Washington pulled within 18-12 with 9:25 until halftime, Worster hit a driving layup, then had a steal that led to a Lawson Lovering score on the other end.
Following a missed Eagles free throw, Worster again scored on a driving layup. To cap off the spurt, Worster had another steal, then after collecting a pass from Hunter Erickson, he passed behind the back for a cutting Cole Bajema for a dunk in transition.
Worster had 15 points and four steals in the first half — he ended the night with 15 points and a career-high six steals, to go along with eight assists, five rebounds and a blocked shot.
“I could tell from the start how aggressive he was,” Bajema said of Worster. “He was just as aggressive getting to the hoop and making some really good finishes. Rollie was great tonight. That’s what we expect out of him.”
Utah had a strong night offensively, shooting 55.2% from the field and surpassing the century mark for the first time since beating BYU 102-95 in overtime on Dec. 4, 2019.
Gabe Madsen led the Utes with 20 points — he shot 4 of 7 from 3-point range — and Bajema (17 points), Branden Carlson (11), Ben Carlson (11) and Keba Keita (11) also scored in double-figures.
“We have a lot of growth, but this team seems to be a connected team,” Utah men’s coach Craig Smith said.
Utes dial up the defense
Craig Smith’s squad made Eastern Washington fight for its points through much of the evening, particularly in the first half.
The Eagles shot just 25.7% in the first 20 minutes and trailed 44-20 at the break.
Eastern Washington ended up shooting 37.9% for the game.
The Runnin’ Utes forced 15 turnovers and had 10 steals, led by Worster’s six.
Utah turned that opportunistic defense into offense, outscoring EWU 15-7 in fast break points, though that advantage was larger before both teams started emptying their benches.
Utah also ended the night with six blocks, led by two from Keita (who had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds).
Smith said the way Utah guarded Eastern Washington stuck out most to him from the win.
“When you hold a Division I team to 20 points at the half, I thought we separated (from them) the last four and half to five minutes (of the first half),” the coach said. “We came into the locker room with some serious mojo. Our defense created some easy opportunities for our offense.
“... I thought we played with an edge defensively.”
Utah women 104, Mississippi State Valley 45
Alissa Pili and some banged up Utes
What more can you say about Alissa Pili, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year?
She made quite the statement before leaving the game at halftime, scoring 26 points in the opening 20 minutes.
There wasn’t much stopping Pili, either — she was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field and 2 of 2 from 3-point range, while hitting 10 of 12 free throws.
“She was too big and strong for them,” women’s coach Lynne Roberts said.
Pili didn’t play in the second half, though — Roberts said she got scratched in the eye and went to the emergency room.
Two other Utes were also banged up — Jenna Johnson left with a busted lip and returned in a new jersey, No. 51 as compared to her normal No. 22, while Kennady McQueen fell to the floor in the fourth quarter and had to be helped off before heading to the locker room, ending her night.
Her coach said McQueen thought she tripped on another player’s shoe.
“We’ve got to get healthy before Thursday,” Roberts said.
Utah next plays South Carolina State at home on Thursday before traveling to face No. 19 Baylor on Nov. 14 in Waco. The Lady Bears beat Southern U. on Monday in their opener.
Utah shakes off a slow start
MVSU, which won just two games last season, came out hot from the field, shooting 11 of 16 in the first quarter to take a 24-22 lead after one period. Utah also had six turnovers in that first 10 minutes.
“That first quarter looked like we weren’t firing on all cylinders yet,” Roberts said.
Everything changed after that opening quarter.
The Devilettes went ahead 26-22 just over a minute into the second quarter after Utah’s seventh turnover of the game, but from there, the Utes took control in front of the home crowd.
Pili scored 12 points as part of a second-quarter 24-0 run that broke the game open, and Isabel Palmer added six points, three assists and steals in the second quarter to help spark the Utes.
With Pili missing after halftime, Gianna Kneepkens and Lani White took over. Kneepkens finished with 18 points, including 12 after halftime, a team-high eight assists and six rebounds, while White scored a career-best 15 points while shooting 6 of 7 from the field.
Utah also turned up the intensity defensively, as MVSU scored just 21 points over the final three quarters while turning the ball over 25 times (the Devilettes had 28 in the game). Inês Vieira had six steals for Utah.
“We’ve got to bring intensity for 40 minutes, and I thought we brought it for 30 today,” Roberts said.