Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A game that features 55 fouls, 75 free throws, 36 turnovers and just 17 assists will never be featured on ESPN Classic.
But for the Utah Utes, who survived their tightly officiated slugfest with Weber State with a 90-75 victory on Saturday afternoon, style points hardly mattered.
The Utes improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2005, winning ugly against a Wildcat team picked to win the Big Sky Conference. They won by playing their new style of basketball — up-tempo with a lot of hard, aggressive drives to the basket that helped them draw 32 fouls.
"Shoot, when you're playing like that — aggressive, trying to move the ball fast — they (the Wildcats) got to do something to check you," said Utes forward Will Clyburn.
In this case, Weber State checked Utah with fouls, and it worked against the Wildcats. Utah shot 40-for-45 from the free-throw line, and it was the second-most foul shots the Utes have ever made in a single game. The Utes actually had more free-throw attempts than field goal attempts (42).
The game may not have been all that pleasing to watch, but it was a thing of beauty to Utes coach Jim Boylen. He didn't care that the Utes had just 10 assists. The number that counted to him was 90 — the number of points Utah put on the scoreboard.
"We get layups driving to the rim and you don't have assists when you shoot free throws," Boylen said. "We had 90 points. I think the ball is going to the right guys."
Clyburn was the right guy to have the ball in his hands for the Utes on Saturday, as he scored a career-high 27 points. He also had a career-high nine rebounds. He scored 19 of his points after halftime and shot 14-for-15 from the free-throw line. Clyburn has led the Utes in scoring in all of their three games.
"I thought he recovered from a sluggish start," Boylen said. "Great players do that. He's a guy that's learning how to play at this level. He has great poise, a great feel for playing the game. This was a good experience for him."
The Utes put the Wildcats on their heels at the start of both the first half and second half. Utah raced out to a 7-0 lead, keeping the Wildcats scoreless for more than three minutes to start the game. Weber State missed eight of its first nine shots and committed four turnovers in the game's first seven minutes.
Utah opened the second half on a 16-4 run to go up 56-38 and put the game away early. The Utes pulled away because they smothered Weber State with their defense.
"We're still a defensive-oriented team," said Utes forward Jay Watkins, who had 12 points and six rebounds. "Just because we have a little better offense does not take away from defense. The 16-4 run, 7-0 run, we only did that because we played great defense. Our defense is creating a lot of offense."
Josh Watkins had 16 points and six assists for Utah. Chris Hines came off the bench and sparked the Utes with 11 points and two assists.
Weber State was led by Damian Lillard, who scored 28 points and had four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
The Utes' defense was centered around stopping Lillard. They tried to wear him down by throwing multiple defenders at him, and it worked while Utah was pulling away from the Wildcats. Lillard, the reigning Big Sky Player of the Year, scored 19 of his points in the second half.
"He sure turned it on," Boylen said. "He might be the best guard in the West right now. He's a big-time player."
The Utes next play at Utah State on Wednesday in what will surely be a hostile environment in the Spectrum. That will be Utah's toughest test so far of the young season, and the Utes believe they're ready for it.
"Beating one in-state rival gives us a lot of momentum," said Jay Watkins.
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