Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Chris Kupets, who didn't even play in two of Utah's first five games, was a key player in the Utes' 76-63 victory over Fresno State Tuesday night at the Huntsman Center.
The JC transfer from Georgia scored 17 points and had a couple of steals for the Utes, who improved to 4-2 on the season.
As far as coach Jim Boylen was concerned, Kupets' biggest contribution came on one play seven minutes into the game with the Utes trailing the Bulldogs by two. Kupets, who had barely entered the game, went flying across the hardwood in front of the Ute bench after a loose ball for a steal that sparked the Utes.
"Kupets gave us energy and the loose ball he dove after in the first seven minutes was a big play for us," said Boylen. "I've been asking for the team to play with more grit and toughness and I thought we did that tonight."
Boylen felt Kupets' hustle was an example to his fellow teammates, who played perhaps their best overall game of the season, following up on a disappointing loss to Oral Roberts three nights earlier.
"I'm proud of this group and the way they responded from our last game," said Boylen. "We got a lot from a lot of guys tonight."
After a slow start, the Utes got cranking during a 15-minute stretch over the final eight minutes of the first half and the first seven of the second. The lead got as high as 24 on three occasions before the Utes coasted to the 13-point win.
As usual, Will Clyburn led the Utes in scoring (21 points) and rebounding (9), Kupets had 17 off the bench, Josh Watkins added 16 points and Jason Washburn finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
The Bulldogs, coached by former BYU coach Steve Cleveland, were led by Bennie Rhodes' 15 points and Kevin Olekiabe with 13. Former Lone Peak standout Bracken Funk scored 11.
The Utes got off to a slow start, but by halftime had taken a 33-22 lead over the cold-shooting Bulldogs, who managed just 28 percent shooting (7 of 25) in the first half. It was 16-16 with 8:53 left when Clyburn hit a 3-pointer from the right corner to spark an 11-2 run, during which the Bulldogs missed seven straight shots and turned the ball over six times.
Utah came out fast in the second half, quickly increasing the lead to 20 at 44-24 and led 55-31 before the Bulldogs finally started hitting some shots to cut the margin to 11 with a little over a minute left. The Bulldogs shot 50 percent in the second half and out-shot the Utes for the game 38.8 percent to 37.3.
The Utes head out for their second road game of the year when they take on Bradley in Peoria, Ill., Saturday night as part of the Mountain West Conference-Missouri Valley Conference Challenge. Their next home game is next Tuesday against Pepperdine.
GAME NOTES: The Utes, who came into the game as the seventh-best free throw shooting team in the nation, made 22 of 26 from the foul line. The Bulldogs had more free throws (30), but only made 19. ... Josh Watkins, who came in averaging 4.4 turnovers per game, didn't have any turnovers Tuesday. ... Chris Hines made the first start of his Ute career in place of Shawn Glover. ... Jace Tavita, who started 19 games last year, didn't play for the first time since his freshman season. Boylen explained that he has "shrunk the rotation" as the reason for Tavita not playing. ... Utah won the rebounding battle 48-33. ... David Foster had a season high six rebounds. ... The Utes made just 4 of 18 3-pointers with Clyburn making all four on seven attempts. ... The Bulldogs lost to BYU 83-56 in the opening game of the year.
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