LOS ANGELES — Utah used balanced scoring and a suffocating defense to cruise to an easy 67-39 victory against USC, Sunday in the Galen Center.
The 11th-ranked Utes (17-4, 7-2 Pac-12) were coming off a lackluster 10-point loss to UCLA on Thursday, a game in which Utah Coach Larry Krystkowiak said his team played hard “for about five minutes.”
Given that, it was reasonable to expect the Utes to come out with a lot of energy. They did, though their efforts showed up mostly on defense.
With 10 minutes to go in the first half, Utah led 14-5, having forced twice as many USC turnovers (four) as USC field goals (two). Krystkowiak said he emphasized defense during a Saturday practice and again on the locker room bulletin board when he wrote that defense would win two games Sunday: his team’s game against USC and the Seattle Seahawks’ game later in the day in the in the Super Bowl.
“They’re my pick, I told the guys, because of their defense,” he said. “And today, our energy was much better, our guys really defended. We have a term called ‘kill,’ which means five defensive stops in a row. Against UCLA we didn’t have one the whole game. Today we started with one and had a bunch more. Our guys really got back to basics.”
The Utes would steadily grow that lead by exploiting a soft USC interior defense. In fact, from the time forward Kyle Kuzma scored on a layup with 9:04 left in the first half until center Dallin Bachynski closed out the Utes’ first half scoring with a layup, every Utah field goal was scored within a foot or two of the basket. Forward Jakob Poeltl, who led the Utes in scoring with 14 points, went 6 for 7 from the field, most from close range.
“That was another point of emphasis, to look inside for some scoring,” Krystkowiak said. “Sometimes we settle for jump shots. [Against UCLA] Jakob was 4 for 4 and if I’m any kind of coach I had to make sure to get him more shots inside.”
In all, 11 Utah players scored in the game with guard Delon Wright (11 points) and forward Jordan Loveridge (10) being the only other Utes to score in double figures.
“We really came out with a lot of energy, which was a point of emphasis after the UCLA game because that game was kind of a soft game for us,” Poeltl said. “That was a big point of emphasis in practice. Another was that we wanted to get the ball inside and I thought we did a pretty good job of both today.”
Utah’s ability to get the ball inside was important since the Utes were inconsistent from the perimeter. A 40 percent 3-point shooting team for the season, Utah was just 3 of 17(17.6 percent) from beyond the arc halfway through the second half.
Utah led 32-12 at the half, owing much to its defense, which limited USC (9-12, 1-8) to 5-of-26 shooting (19 percent), including 0 for 7 from 3-point range, while forcing 11 USC turnovers.
“I was pretty disappointed about the way we took care of the ball in the first half,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “What I said in my pregame speech obviously didn’t work.”
It was more of the same as the second half got under way as Utah quickly built a 43-14 lead after little more than three minutes, with four Utes scoring.
Sunday’s result was by no means unexpected.
Stinging from Thursday’s loss, Utah figured to come out focused against a USC team that was just 1-7 in conference play, having lost five straight. The Trojans are young, with 11 of its 14 players being freshman or sophomores, and they played like it Sunday.
USC was led in scoring by forward Malik Martin’s 11 points. In fact, not only was Martin the only Trojan to score in double figures, only two others, guard Katin Reinhardt and forward Strahinja Gavrilovic, had as much as six points. For the game, USC missed 35 shots (13 for 48) to shoot just 27 percent.
“We really didn’t execute well enough,” Enfield said. “Some of that was because of Utah, give them credit, that’s a very good team, but a lot
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