Utes finally find groove in Caribbean

Published: Thursday, Dec. 21 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah center Luke Nevill puts up a shot near the basket in the Utes' 94-70 victory over Virginia in Puerto Rico Wednesday afternoon. (Ricardo Arduengo, Associated Press) Utah center Luke Nevill puts up a shot near the basket in the Utes' 94-70 victory over Virginia in Puerto Rico Wednesday afternoon. (Ricardo Arduengo, Associated Press)
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — So who was that team wearing the red and white uniforms that thoroughly dismantled the orange-clad players from the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference Wednesday afternoon at Mario Morales Coliseum? Certainly it couldn't have been the same Utah basketball team that looked so awful in a loss to Central Florida a day earlier.
Indeed, it was the same bunch of Ute players.
The Utes followed their worst game of the year with their best and absolutely crushed Virginia 94-70 in a consolation game in the San Juan Shootout to improve to 5-6.
"Boy, we needed that," said Ute coach Ray Giacoletti, who never appeared comfortable until he cleared his bench with a little over a minute left, despite being up by more than 20 points much of the game.
To be sure, this wasn't a bad team the Utes beat up on Wednesday. The Cavaliers had come to Puerto Rico as the tournament favorite with a 6-1 record and had handed current No. 9-ranked Arizona its only loss of the season. One national publication listed Virginia guards J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary as the best combo in the ACC. And after being upset by Appalachian State the day before, the Cavaliers had to be plenty motivated against Utah.
But the Utes were also motivated after their sorry performance a day earlier. They took it to the Cavaliers right from the start behind the dynamic inside-outside combination of Luke Nevill and Johnnie Bryant, who each scored 26 points.
Bryant tied a school record by knocking down seven 3-pointers, while Nevill improved on his 69 percent shooting percentage by making 10-of-12 field goal attempts, while adding 11 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season.
"I talked to a couple of people back home and they said to just go out and play, and be aggressive," Bryant said. "Coach (Giacoletti) talked to me and said, 'When you're open, shoot the ball.' I just tried to be aggressive, and my teammates did a good job of getting me the ball as well."
Nevill appreciated Bryant's long-range bombing, because once Bryant started hitting the threes, the Cavaliers couldn't double- and triple-team him inside.
"That made it one-on-one in the post, and I definitely enjoy playing against one guy instead of three," Nevill said. "They really couldn't stop us inside or out."
Giacoletti acknowledged he "barked" at his team the night before about their Tuesday effort but said the players were responsible for the big victory.
"They did it — they found a way to come out with purpose," he said. "I told them it's not about winning or losing, it's about competing and finding that mind-set. You find out a lot about yourselves during tough times."
The Ute coach also made one change on the court that seemed to help. He started freshman guard Curtis Eatmon in place of freshman forward Stephen Weigh, giving the Utes three guards on the floor.
Eatmon didn't have great numbers in his 26 minutes, making both his shots for four points with three rebounds and an assist. However, he made a difference on the defensive end, guarding Singletary for much of the game and helping hold him to 11 points on 2-of-9 shooting.
"I took the challenge," he said. "No, I wasn't intimidated. He puts his shoes on the same way I put on my shoes."
The Utes led 18-10 when Bryant hit three straight 3-pointers to make it a 17-point margin. The Cavaliers cut the lead to 40-28 by halftime and looked to be coming back when they cut it to nine early in the second half.
However, Lawrence Borha led a 19-8 run with 10 points in a two-and-a-half-minute stretch as the Utes pushed the lead back to 20 at 61-41.
Giacoletti called the Virginia guards Utah's toughest defensive assignments of the year, but only Reynolds got going, scoring 25, with many coming late in the game.
Giacoletti also singled out freshman Daniel Deane for his solid play in relief of Shaun Green, who was in foul trouble much of the game and played just 21 minutes. Deane finished with eight points and three rebounds in 15 minutes.
"Daniel gave us some great minutes," Giacoletti said.
Next up for Utah is Northwestern today at 10 a.m. MST.
"The harder thing is what our mind-set will be now," Giacoletti said. "Can we find that 20 more times?"
The Utes return home Friday afternoon. They'll play one more home game Dec. 28 against Albany before starting the Mountain West Conference season Jan. 3 at UNLV.

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