The final score may not reflect it, but Fresno State put up a fight against Utah inside the Pepsi Center on Saturday night. From start to finish, it wasn’t pretty, but the Utes won their first game in the NCAA Tournament against Fresno State, 80-69. With the win, the Utes advance to the Round of 32 for the second straight season.
Utah turned the ball over 20 times, which led to 28 points for the Bulldogs. However, Utah outrebounded Fresno State with 38 boards, compared to Fresno State’s 15. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak knows his team cannot afford to keep playing sloppy if it wants to win and continue in the tournament.
Before the game, the Utes found it a bit ridiculous that other teams were giving up so many points off of turnovers to Bulldogs, but by the end of the night, they understood why.
“Turnovers-wise was an Achilles’ heel for us,” Krystkowiak said. “We can’t simulate the kind of hands and stripping and the style of the defense they play.”
Lorenzo Bonam finished with 17 points for Utah, while Jakob Poeltl followed with 16 points and 18 boards, nine of which were offensive. Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge followed with 16 points each.
“I missed a couple of easy shots and got my own rebound back, but I really just try to be aggressive and go for every board,” Poeltl said.
Behind a pair of Loveridge three-pointers early on, the Utes jumped out to a quick 8-3 advantage. Then Bonam fought his way in the paint for an offensive board to help the Utes reach double digits as they held Fresno State scoreless for three minutes, working their way to a nine-point lead.
Utah had a pretty balanced scoring attack in the first half and eventually increased its lead to 15 points. But then the sloppy play began, as the Utes made a few careless passes to allow Fresno State to cut the lead to 10 points. Utah got the lead back to 15 after Bonam beat the shot-clock buzzer and Taylor made a three.
At the half, it was an 11-point game with Utah leading 33-22.
Both teams opened up the second half by turning the ball over, but Bonam made a layup to put the Utes up by 13 points. After Utah couldn’t find the bottom of the net on a couple of possessions, Fresno State made it a single-digit game with Utah leading 37-28.
After a timeout, the Utes immediately turned the ball over, again, and Fresno State made it a six-point game after a three-point play. Brekkott Chapman tried to dunk the ball to build some momentum but was rejected by the rim.
Fresno State continued to work at Utah’s lead in the second half. Taylor tried to dribble the ball behind his back, slipped and turned the ball over, grabbed an opposing player’s leg to bring him down and was called for a flagrant-one foul.
While frustration may have gotten the best of him then, Taylor knows he can’t do something like this again.
“I’ll be better the next game, but thank the Lord we have another game,” Taylor said.
After one made free throw and a basket, the Bulldogs made it just a four-point game with the Utes leading 47-43. But after a three-pointer, Fresno State took its first lead of the game at 48-47.
“They had the lead for 33 seconds of the game, and I don’t like to call a timeout and let them have the lead for two and half more minutes,” Krystkowiak said. “I was curious how we were going to respond. It has been a little bit of a consistent trait with our team to bounce back.”
Well, the Utes certainly bounced back, spiraling off a 17-2 run. Bonam had a nice tear-drop shot to reclaim the lead for the Utes, and Kyle Kuzma followed with a layup. Utah’s defense was holding up, and Loveridge made his third three-pointer of the game to give the Utes a six-point lead again.
After Fresno State made a long-range shot, Bonam was wide open for a three-pointer to put Utah up 57-50. Loveridge made another three to give the Utes a double-digit lead. After Taylor made a pair of free throws, he stole the ball on the other end and finished a layup to give the Utes a 14-point lead. Poeltl was soon fouled, and after making both of his free throws, Utah had its largest lead of the night at 16 points, 66-50.
The Bulldogs had one last run in them, but it was to no avail as Utah quickly took care of that by getting a few late shots to fall. Fresno State had to resort to fouling with the game out of hand and under two minutes left.
“The game’s never going to be perfect,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve had games where we’ve turned the ball over, didn’t rebound the ball well, didn’t necessarily execute well defensively. We’ve had lapses. What you try to do after you get through 30-some games of a season, you manage to learn enough of those lessons, you regroup, and you put those behind you.”
Next up, the Utes will face Gonzaga.