SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Strong defense and explosive offense are things Utah hopes to build its basketball identity around this season. It took the Utes a little while to find a rhythm in both areas in their season opener.
Utah found itself locked in a closer-than-expected battle with Ball State in the second half. It wasn’t until the final five minutes before the No. 25 Utes finally pulled away for a 90-72 victory on Friday night.
Brandon Taylor scored 19 points while Jordan Loveridge and Jakob Poeltl added 18 apiece.
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The Utes (1-0) blew open a tight game in the final five minutes with dominant play around the basket and on the perimeter. Utah had a 35-22 advantage on the boards over the Cardinals (0-1) and enjoyed a 42-14 edge in points in the paint.
Utah also had 11 steals and scored 24 points off those turnovers. It resulted in a crisp offensive performance for the Utes, who shot 59.2 percent (29 of 49) from the field.
”We just knew we needed some urgency,” Utah guard Delon Wright said. ”They did a good job of keeping this game close. We were just trying to find a way to get some stops and push the lead up.”
”We were running a little bit in mud defensively and, all of a sudden, it’s like being in a boxing match and getting punched,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. ”You kind of wake up. I saw a little sense of urgency on our guys’ faces to complete possessions.”
Sean Sellers scored 26 points and Zavier Turner added 14 for Ball State. The Cardinals shot 45.5 percent from outside (10 of 22) but it was not enough to hang with an explosive Utah offense.
The Cardinals found ways to rattle Utah up to that point. They forced turnovers, hit 3-pointers to stay within striking distance and frustrated a team pegged as a Pac-12 contender this season.
Wright provided a spark down the stretch. He had 13 points, eight assists, four rebounds, four steals and three blocks. His tenacity on both ends of the court kept Ball State from staging an upset attempt.
”We couldn’t get easy baskets,” Wright said. ”We were playing into their game and having to play defense. Turnovers sucked the life out of us and the coaches were getting on us. We just tried to get some easy baskets and not turn the ball over.”
Poeltl lit an early fuse under the Utes with his dominant play around the basket. Starting with a dunk and culminating in a tip-in basket, the freshman 7-footer scored on four of five first-half possessions. He helped the Utes score the first nine points and race out to a 15-5 lead.
Utah hit six straight shots at one point and made 12 of its first 16 field goal attempts. The Utes lead by 13 points in the first half, taking a 25-12 lead on Delon Wright’s layup with 8:43 remaining before halftime.
”The whole team had a lot of energy,” Poeltl said. ”We forced them into turnovers. We got running and it’s easy to play basketball like that if you get running and get momentum.”
Utah: The Utes are starting the season ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 2000-01 season… Utah clamped down on opponents at the perimeter a year ago. The Utes held teams to 30.8 percent shooting from 3-point range – the lowest in the Pac-12.
Ball State: The Cardinals continued their road struggles from last season. Ball State went 0-16 away from its home arena in 2013-14. . Former Utah coach Rick Majerus coached at Ball State for two seasons before joining the Utes. He posted a 43-17 record in two seasons from 1987-89. Majerus led the Cardinals to the NCAA Tournament in his second season there.
Utah plays at San Diego State on Tuesday, November 18.
Ball State hosts Indiana University – Kokomo on Monday, November 17.