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Utes improve to 2-0 with easy win over visiting Idaho State, but they will have to rebound better to win at BYU on Saturday

Visiting Bengals (0-4) dominate the glass, but can’t handle Utah’s intense defense and leave town with a 75-59 loss and a $45K payday at the Huntsman Center

SHARE Utes improve to 2-0 with easy win over visiting Idaho State, but they will have to rebound better to win at BYU on Saturday

Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) goes to the hoop during the game against the Idaho State Bengals at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

OK, let’s get right to it and address the big question on everyone’s mind after the Utah sleepwalked its way past the winless Idaho State Bengals 75-59 at the Huntsman Center on Tuesday afternoon.

Are the Utes (2-0) good enough to go down to Provo on Saturday and knock off heated rival BYU?

Well, one thing is probably clear: They will have to play better than they did against ISU — especially in the rebounding department — if they want to repeat last year’s thrilling overtime victory over the Cougars at the Huntsman Center.

An effort like the one last week in the 76-62 season and Pac-12 opening win over Washington will be needed. Tuesday, the Utes (2-0) drooped to the level of their competition, looked disinterested on defense at times and ferocious at others, while toying with the Big Sky Conference visitors who pocketed a cool $45K for making the three-hour drive down I-15, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

“We’ve got a long way to go, finding an identity offensively,” coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the Utes had trouble putting away the Bengals, who were playing their fourth straight road game. “Defensively, it feels pretty good. But Game 3 at BYU is going to be a heckuva challenge for us and we have got to be a lot better than we were tonight.”

That’s especially true on the boards. Despite having a nice size and athleticism advantage, as Krystkowiak noted, the Utes were out-rebounded 41-24, including a crazy 17-4 on the offensive glass.

Idaho State stayed reasonably close by turning those boards into 22 second-chance points. Against a better opponent that doesn’t shoot 37% and turn the ball over 19 times, that kind of disparity on the glass gets a promising season shattered.

“It doesn’t feel good to get outrebounded by 17 to anyone,” Krystkowiak said. “… So it was a heckuva eye-opener for us, and a deficiency, and it doesn’t feel really good. It will certainly be a point of emphasis going forward.”

Sophomore point guard Rylan Jones, who had a John Stockton-like five assists and five steals to go with 12 points, said he knows what practice will be filled with the next three days.

“It is our second game, and we will keep improving. I bet we will drill it every day in practice this week, and we will be a better rebounding team, for sure,” he said.

Freshman phenom Pelle Larsson — you’ll be hearing that name all season, Utah fans — led the way with 14 points off the bench on 5 of 6 shooting, and five other Utes reached double figures in the energy deficient contest played without spectators at the U. for the second straight game.

“I think we have done a pretty good job (with no crowds),” Jones said. “It is a little odd. None of us have ever done this before. … I feel like our energy has been good. Out there on the court, I don’t notice not having fans. But on the bench, I do, and that’s a little weird.”

The Utes overcame the rebounding disparity by shooting 51% and holding the visitors to 37% while making 10 steals. They turned a lot those steals into easy layups, registering 15 fast break points.

“We’ve got a long way to go, finding an identity offensively. Defensively, it feels pretty good. But Game Three at BYU (Saturday) is going to be a heckuva challenge for us and we have got to be a lot better than we were tonight.” — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak

“Our steals created a lot of our offensive points,” Jones said. “That worked well for us today.”

Offensively, the Utes were all about balance and depth, which should put them in a good place in Provo on Saturday because rivalry games are usually physical, foul-filled battles of attrition. Starters Alfonso Plummer and Branden Carlson added 13 points apiece, while Timmy Allen had 11 on an off shooting night (3 of 9) and Mikael Jantunen chipped in 10.

However, no Ute had more than five rebounds.

“We were pretty good defensively in a lot of phases, but if you can’t get a miss, then it just sucks the life out of you, and you become very average defensively,” Krystkowiak said.

The outcome was never really in doubt.

Breaking from a 24-18 lead with just under five minutes left in the first half, the Utes went on a 17-2 run by making seven straight shots. Idaho State’s only points during the run were a pair of free throws by Gedeon Buzangu.

The run was spurred by Jones, who started the onslaught with 3-pointer and then made another one three minutes later. Jantunen added a trey and a jumper, and Larsson made a steal and fast break layup.

The Utes feasted on ISU’s turnovers and sloppiness, getting 13 fast break points in the first half alone. The Bengals had nine turnovers before the break, while Utah — which apparently struggled in practice Monday with unforced giveaways, according to Krystkowiak’s account — gave the ball away just once in the first 20 minutes.

Krystkowiak went to his bench early, inserting Larsson and co-captain Riley Battin at the 15:20 mark. The third player off the bench was freshman Ian Martinez.

Clearly, though, Larsson is a star in the making. The Swede gave Utah an instant lift Tuesday, feeding Jantunen for an easy layup seconds after entering the game, then making a hammer dunk in transition to give the Utes an early 9-6 lead.

The Utes led by as many as 23 points and coasted for chunks of the second half as Krystkowiak experimented with different lineups.

So the stage is set for another BYU-Utah clash, albeit at the empty Marriott Center in a Saturday matinee (4 p.m., BYUtv). The Cougars, who host Boise State on Wednesday night, are not allowing spectators, either.

“I think we are still finding an identity and finding some comfort in it,” Krystkowiak said, when asked if BYU having played seven games to Utah’s two will make a difference. “It is a process. It is like anything — you can’t speed the clock up. You can’t gain experience just because you want it.”

But you can rebound better. And that’s where the Utes will have to improve if they want to claim instate bragging rights for the second-straight year.