SALT LAKE CITY — National Player of the Year candidate Delon Wright and his No. 10 Utah Utes opened Pac-12 in dominating fashion on Friday, defeating the USC Trojans, 79-55. Wright, a guard, finished the night with a double-double, scoring 11 points and handing out 10 assists.
Riding a three-game winning streak into league play, the Utes got off to a slow start against the Trojans. The two teams were locked in a defensive battle for the first four minutes, before center Jakob Poeltl’s fast-break layup at the 16:03 mark sparked the Runnin’ Utes offense.
“(USC) started the last few games with zone,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “It wasn’t a surprise to us. We put a couple of new actions in the last two days preparing for it and our guys did a good job getting some shots.”
The Utes led by as many as 21 points while the Trojans struggled, shooting 26.5 percent in the first half and committing seven turnovers. USC got two consecutive baskets in the paint to cut the lead to 39-22 before halftime.
“Utah played excellent basketball in the first half, really the whole game,” said USC coach Andy Enfield. “We got sped up. We shot a very poor percentage.”
USC’s shooting improved in the second half, but the Trojans still only shot 38.5 for the night. Forward Nikola Jovanovic was the one consistent threat for USC; Jovanovic compiled 14 points and six rebounds.
Forward Jordan Loveridge led Utah with 14 points, six rebounds and two assists. The team shot just under 57 percent from the field and was even deadlier from 3-point range at just under 58 percent.
“Our bigs did a nice job of catching and then finding us when we were open,” said Wright. “It helps a lot to have another threat with Jordan out there making 3-pointers and spreading the defense.”
Despite this just being Loveridge’s second game back, he’s led the team in scoring both games.
“I’m just getting back into it,” he said. “It’s coming, little by little with the rhythm. When I was out, shooting was all I could do. I could condition and shoot jumpers. I just stayed in the gym and didn’t relax when I could have moped. I just wanted to try and put effort into it.”
Despite their shooting struggles, the Trojans cut the Utes lead to 15 in the second half behind forward Malik Martin and guard Julian Jacobs. Martin finished with 12 points; Jacobs had 10.
However, as he always seems to do, Wright took over for Utah with a layup, a steal and another layup — stretching the lead to 19.
From that point, the Utes maintained a comfortable lead, and with 10:39 to play, guard Dakarai Tucker drained a 3-pointer, extending the Utah lead to 23.
“We are young, said coach Enfield. “It was a first experience in an atmosphere like this, a Pac-12 game against a top-10 team. They just outplayed us and they are a better team than we are.”
Plagued by foul trouble, Utah’s freshman phenom Poeltl was held to four points and five rebounds in 19 minutes of action.
With 1:30 left in the game, the Huntsman Center crowd erupted as seldom-used walk-on Austin Eastman sank a 3-pointer right in front of the Utah bench.
“We tell him to shoot it,” said Wright. “I’m sure it felt good to knock it down. It’s tough for him because the fans want to see him score. We put pressure on him also because we’re rooting for him.”
The Utes now take a day off before a quick turnaround, hosting UCLA on Sunday. The Trojans tip off the same day as they look to regroup against Colorado.
NOTES: Going into Pac-12 play, the Utes lead the league in four key categories: scoring margin (plus-19.2), field-goal percentage (50.6 percent), rebounding margin (plus-9.0), and rebounding defense (28.9). … Before returning to action this week, Utah junior Jordan Loveridge (12.0 ppg) missed the last seven games due to knee surgery. … A onetime Utah commit, Julian Jacobs is a reserve guard for USC, averaging 6.3 ppg. … USC scored 75 points or more in four of its last five games, before being held to 55 by the Utes.
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