SALT LAKE CITY — Utah isn’t used to seeing many opponents put up a fight these days. When California did exactly that in the first half and held a lead with five minutes remaining before halftime, it served as a wake-up call.
The Utes knew forcing the Bears into second-half hibernation would require a greater dose of energy and aggressive play on their part — especially on the defensive end.
Utah came to life defensively just before the half and forced California into a prolonged shooting slump that extended well after the break. The No. 11 Utes held California without a point for more than eight minutes, bridging both halves in a 76-61 victory on Sunday night.
“When guys are able to get steals and easy layups or block a shot and get easy fast break points, it helps the whole team,” Utah guard Delon Wright said. “Our energy seems to rise.”
Center Jakob Poeltl scored 18 points and eight rebounds to lead Utah. Wright added 16 points while fellow guards Brandon Taylor chipped in 13 points and 12 points respectively to give the Utes (20-4, 10-2 Pac-12) their first home win over the Bears since joining the Pac-12.
Guard Tyrone Wallace scored 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting and fellow guard Jabari Bird added 21 on 10-of-14 shooting. It wasn’t enough to keep California (16-10, 6-7 Pac-12) from seeing its five game winning streak snapped by the Utes.
Defense made all the difference. Trailing California 32-26 with 5:02 left in the first half, Utah held the Bears to a single field goal over the next 11 minutes until forward David Kravish hit a jumper with 13:28 left in the game.
“We just didn’t make plays down the stretch of the first half and they did,” Bird said. “That gave them the boost they needed and they used that to their advantage the second half. We just couldn’t bounce back from it.”
Utah took advantage. The Utes mounted a 14-2 run over the final five minutes before halftime. Forward Brekkott Chapman ignited the run by hitting a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws. The Utes finally went ahead on three free throws from guard Dakarai Tucker. Center Dallin Bachynski capped the spurt with a layup, giving Utah a 40-34 lead going into the locker room.
California came out flat in the second half, opening the door for Utah to build on what it started. The Utes carved out a double digit lead for the first time when Wright stole the ball and dunked it to make it 44-34.
The Bears cut the lead to nine on a 3-point play from Wallace, trimming Utah’s lead to 54-45 with 11:18 left. That’s as close as California could get after halftime. Reyes and Wright answered Wallace with back-to-back jumpers to prevent a run from building. It started a 9-2 spurt, culminating in a pair of Tucker free throws, that gave the Utes a 63-47 lead with 9:13 remaining.
Tucker made a layup to give Utah its largest lead at 76-58 with 1:20 left.
“Last year we had a lot of games where we had the lead and found a way to lose,” Wright said. “This year we’re getting up big and we’re keeping the lead up. We’re not letting teams get back into the game.”
Utah raced out to an early lead behind a combination of hot 3-point shooting and dominant rebounding. The Utes made 3-of-4 3-pointers in the first six minutes. Meanwhile, forward Chris Reyes collected five rebounds during that same stretch.
It helped Utah go ahead 17-10 on Wright’s layup with 12:51 left before halftime.
“We did a nice job on the offensive glass,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We gave ourselves multiple opportunities and just made an honest effort to go rebound. Sometimes, it’s really easy to be blocked out and you don’t go make that pursuit.”
California did not stay down for long. Tyrone Wallace took over and fueled much of a 10-0 run that put the Bears in front.
Wallace started the run with a layup and ended it by converting a 3-point play to give California a 20-17 lead. Utah tied it up at 22-22 on a Brandon Taylor 3-pointer. But the Bears ran
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