Shortly after minor knee surgery, Jordan Loveridge couldn’t do much other than shoot baskets.
"When I was out, that’s one thing I could do. I started in close but as my rehab progressed I moved farther out. Staying in the gym — not just relaxing or moping — paid off," the junior forward said.
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Loveridge scored 14 points to lead No. 10 Utah over Southern Cal 79-55 Friday night in both teams’ Pac-12 opener.
"Guys were hitting shots, that’s the main thing. When we are hitting outside shots, it opens up everything," said Delon Wright, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Loveridge missed seven games after surgery but he has returned to provide scoring punch to an offense that struggles to score at times. He made three 3-pointers and a couple of drives to the hoop and made a big difference in attacking the Trojan zone defense.
"It helps a lot because now we have another threat who can make 3s and create offense," Wright said after Utah won a Pac-12 opener for the first time since joining the conference.
Brandon Taylor added 11 points as Utah (11-2) shot 57 percent and led by double digits most of the game.
Malik Marquetti made a layup to cut Utah’s lead to 53-38 but Wright answered with two layup and, after Jovanic’s dunk, found Kenneth Ogbe for a 3-pointer to keep the Trojans at bay.
The Trojans had won six of seven games, but none of those opponents had the size and skill of the Utes. They had been averaging 76.4 points over the past five games before shooting just 38.5 percent against Utah, which improved to 9-0 at home this season.
"We are young. It was a first experience in an atmosphere like this — a Pac-12 game against a top 10 team in the country," USC coach Andy Enfield said.
USC has no seniors and relies heavily on underclassmen and seemed a step behind in trying to contain Utah’s motion offense. The Utes had 19 assists on 29 field goals and made 11 of 19 shots beyond the arc.
The Utes trailed early before going on a 22-4 run to take control in the first half. Jakob Poeltl, who was limited by foul trouble, made a layup to put the Utes ahead 28-11 with 7:06 left in the half.
Utah led by 21 in the first half before settling for a 39-22 lead at halftime. Utah shot 58 percent while the Trojans made 27 percent from the field.
The Utes were so far ahead, it didn’t seem to matter that they were actually quite sloppy, with a few head-scratching, unforced turnovers and poor free-throw shooting.
"We had spurts where we turned it over but when we took care of the ball and got consecutive stops, that really helped us," Loveridge said.
The Utes pressured nearly every drive to the basket and some Trojan attempts looked more like wishes than shots.
"Our young players just got sped up. They attempted tough shots. We were 3 for 18 in the lane in the first half with floaters and jump hooks and missed opportunities," Enfield said.
Southern Cal: The Trojans went just 2 for 5 from the free throw line. … USC grabbed 14 offensive rebounds but were still outworked by the conference’s best rebounding team, 38-32.
Utah: The No. 10 ranking is the highest the Utes have reached since they closed the 1998-99 season at No. 6. … No Utes player logged more than Taylor’s 28 minutes. … Utah is sixth in the nation at defending 2-point shots (37.2 percent). … One of the biggest cheers of the night came when walk-on Austin Eastman made a 3-pointer in the final minutes.
SOLVING THE ZONE
The Utes faltered against zone defenses early in the year and USC employed it often in this game. With Loveridge’s shooting and Wright’s playmaking, it didn’t slow down the Utes. "I just tried to penetrate and kick out to the shooters or get to the basket or get fouled," Wright said. "The bigs did a good job posting up and then getting the ball back out when they collapsed."
FREE THROW WOES
Even though the Utes made their last three free throws, Utah finished 10 for 20 from the line. "I know there are going to be plenty of people out there that think we don’t shoot free throws in practice," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "I don’t think I’ve ever shot more free throws in practice for the last week. The guys step right up there when there’s nobody in the Huntsman Center and stroke them like they’re shooting 90 percent from the line."