No. 16 Utah holds off feisty Southern Utah 82-71 in opener
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak summed up the narrow victory over Southern Utah in two words - eye-opening.
Expectations are high in Salt Lake City with the 16th-ranked Utes fresh off their run to the Sweet 16 in March and four starters back in the lineup. But little came easy Friday night against the underdog Thunderbirds.
Jakob Poeltl scored a career-high 26 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked four shots, leading Utah to an 82-71 victory against Southern Utah.
''They exposed us with a bunch of dribble-drive,'' Krystkowiak said. ''They confused us in the first half, certainly. We were getting beat off of back cuts, getting beat off the dribble and some things that were out of character. Thank goodness for the big three, at least for tonight - 73 of our 82 points came from three guys.
''But that's kind of the essence of the team. I reminded our guys that we've got to, with this schedule of five games in nine nights, we're going to need everybody on different nights.''
The Utes came out stagnant against the Thunderbirds in the season opener for each school.
Utah trailed most of the first half while it struggled to defend the rim and couldn't get shots to drop from the perimeter. A 10-0 run early in the second half gave the Utes a 48-38 lead that they clung to down the stretch.
Utah dominated inside with Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma, who finished with career highs in points (23) and rebounds (12). Senior Jordan Loveridge added 24 points, including a career-high six 3-pointers.
Southern Utah shot 50.0 percent from the field. Travon Langston and Trey Kennedy each had 13 points, and Race Parsons added 12. The Thunderbirds shot 10 for 19 from behind the arc.
The Utes had a 38-36 halftime lead despite a first half that was far from ideal. The defense gave up at least seven layups and the Thunderbirds shot 53.6 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from behind the arc.
Southern Utah just couldn't physically match up with the Utes inside. Poeltl and Kuzma were a combined 11 for 11, but the guards were virtually invisible. Starters Brandon Taylor and Isaiah Wright were a combined 0 for 8 in the first 20 minutes, but did have five assists between them.
''They're a great team, hats off to them and stuff like that, but we let one go,'' Langston said. ''We just wanted to drive and kick it. That's our game - wide-open 3s and wide-open layups. That's what we try to do.''
Southern Utah: The Thunderbirds returned all five starters from their 2014-15 team that went 10-19. ... Southern Utah was 6 for 6 from the field to start the game. ... Five different players scored in double figures. ... The Thunderbirds were outrebounded 41-29.
Utah: The Utes were ranked in the preseason poll in consecutive years for the first time since the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons. ... Utah is looking for a third consecutive 20-win season for the first time since 2004. ... The Utes were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 behind Arizona and California by the coaches. ... Utah shot 4 for 15 from 3-point range in the first half.
WORK IN PROGRESS
Krystkowiak talked about playing faster during the preseason, but that didn't work out so well in the season opener. The Utes didn't have any fast-break points in the game and were unable to get out in transition with any regularity.
Taylor is Utah's leading returning scorer, but was held scoreless in 32 minutes. He was 0 for 9 from the field, including 0 for 7 from behind the arc. Taylor and Wright, the two starting guards, were a combined 0 for 16.
Southern Utah faces UNLV on the road on Wednesday.
Utah hosts San Diego State on Monday.