SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Princeton Onwas couldn’t quite understand what was going on. Against Washington State last Saturday, he had just fouled out late in the second half with the Utes up by 18 points. The fans inside the Huntsman Center responded by rising to their feet and giving him a rousing ovation.
“That was crazy,’’ he said. “I wondered why — like, what did I do?’’
Onwas had just completed perhaps his best game as a Ute, even if it lasted only 13 total minutes. He scored 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting and played some stingy defense against the Cougars. When told the crowd reaction may have had something to do with a couple of his high-flying, thunderous dunks where his head nearly hit the rim, he replied, “I guess I’ll do more of that.’’
That may sound a bit boastful, but it doesn’t describe Onwas’ personality at all. He’s a soft-spoken young man who looks you in the eye and answers questions with “yes sirs” and “no sirs.” He doesn’t thrive off attention and appears almost embarrassed when he’s invited to postgame press conferences.
The son of Nigerian parents, Onwas has had a few things to adjust to since coming to Utah from Houston, where he grew up, before playing junior college ball at Navarro College in Texas. One is the colder weather. Another is the altitude. A third thing is playing in front of the large crowds that he’d never seen before coming to Utah.
“I’ve never had that many fans watch me before,’’ he said.
After playing junior college ball and getting recruited by the likes of Kansas State and TCU, Onwas headed out west to Utah, where he was expected to bring some needed athleticism to the Utes' lineup.
He started four games early in the season in place of regular starter Dakarai Tucker and produced a pair of double-doubles with 12 points and 10 rebounds against Lamar and 13 points and 10 rebounds against Ball State.
However, he went through a stretch of three scoreless games and saw his numbers dwindle until he didn’t even get into the first two Pac-12 games against Oregon and Oregon State and saw spotty minutes in Utah's ensuing games. Then against Colorado earlier this month, he only played four minutes and had all zeros on his stat line, while freshman Ahmad Fields scored nine points in 16 minutes.
It proved to be a wake-up call of sorts for Onwas.
“It was a little bit of a moment of truth for him,’’ said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “You could tell he didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t playing and suddenly it was on. He had a terrific week of practice and he’s had a couple of really good games.’’
Onwas says he’s “following the coaches and trying to stay comfortable and have confidence. When I get in the game I try to be as aggressive as possible and that helps my game.’’
As for the competition at the small forward spot with Tucker and Fields he says, “It’s good, especially in practice because we go at it a lot and it helps us get better. There’s no days off because someone’s always trying to take your spot.’’
One thing that's different about Onwas from a lot of players is that he actually enjoys playing defense.
“The fact that you can stop their best player, I think that’s pretty fun,’’ he said.
“He takes pride in defending the better players in our league and that’s part of why he wanted to be here,’’ said Krystkowiak. “He’s got the size and the strength. One-on-one defensively he’s one of our best.’’
The Ute coach expects Onwas to play a key role for the Utes down the stretch.
“All I’ve told him, if he plays hard, it’s hard for me to keep him off the floor,’’ Krystkowiak said. “That’s a skill he’s developing a little bit. He’s approaching the game with a lot more vigor and enthusiasm. Hopefully he's gained some confidence from these last two outings.’’
UTE NOTES: Thursday’s game at USC begins at 8:30 MST, while Saturday’s game at UCLA starts at 3 p.m. MST. ... The last time the Utes played at USC, they lost 62-45 in 2012. ... The Trojans lead the all-time series with Utah 17-16. ... Ute guard Delon Wright leads the team in scoring (16.0 ppg), assists (5.4 apg), steals (2.8 spg), blocked shots (1.3 bpg) and is second in rebounding (6.7 rpg). Wright ranks fifth in the nation in steals. ... Utah’s next home game is Feb. 19 against No. 2-ranked Arizona.