There was little doubt the Utah basketball team would manage to pull out a victory against Montana Tech, an NAIA school from Butte, Thursday night at the Huntsman Center. The question was how the Utes would look in their first game under new coach Jim Boylen.
While the coach had a hard time saying a lot of good things about the opener, the Utes looked much-improved over last year in an 83-40 exhibition victory.
The Ute offense looked sharp and got many open shots against their smaller opponents, and the Utes shot well in going 53.6 from the field, 44 percent from 3-point range and 85.7 percent from the line.
Defensively, the Utes were noticeably improved, holding the Orediggers to just 28.6 percent shooting and coming up with 12 steals on 24 turnovers by their opponents.
"We're making progress defensively, but a problem we've had is we lose our focus and our defensive grit," Boylen said. "I still think we have a ways to go on our grit and toughness, but we'll take it on our first night out."
Sophomore forward Stephen Weigh led the scoring with 21 points, while center Luke Nevill had 16 points. Junior forward Shaun Green had a solid stat line with 11 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals.
"We played really well together," said Green. "We need to rebound better and play better defense. But overall we did a really good job for our first time out."
"Compared to last year defensively everyone could see there was a big difference," said Weigh. "We didn't have as many lapses, but there were still some lapses. Once we eliminate them we'll be great."
On the negative side, the Utes had 18 turnovers and allowed the Orediggers to sink nine 3-pointers, including 6 of 12 in the first half. Three-point defense was one of the biggest weaknesses of last year's team.
"Three-point shooting defense is something we have to work on every day," Boylen said.
The Utes quickly jumped out to a 14-2 lead, but 10 minutes later the lead was just eight at 29-21 after several Ute turnovers against the Orediggers' zone. Then the Utes' defense clamped down and the Utes went on a 9-0 run as Green hit a three, Weigh scored on a drive and Nevill scored off an assist by Green and then hit a pair of free throws to make it 41-24 at the half.
To start the second half, the Utes began with an 18-5 run and the lead just kept growing with the largest lead being 45 points.
"I've been saying all along, it's progress not perfection," Boylen said. "Every day at practice we talk about getting better every day. If we get better every day, I think in March we're going to be a heck of a team."UTE NOTES: The Utes play another exhibition game Tuesday night against Northwest Nazarene before officially opening the season Friday night against South Carolina Upstate ... Ute assistant Chris Jones picked up a first-half technical foul for simply standing up. A new rule this year prohibits assistant coaches from standing up and after one warning, they are given a technical ... Boylen's two older brothers, Fred and Bobby, came out from Indiana and Michigan, respectively for the game ... All 15 players on the team saw action with 11 players scoring ... Freshman Morgan Grim scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds ... The announced attendance was 7,610, but there were a lot of empty red seats.