The way things started Saturday afternoon, you'd never have imagined any way the Utah basketball team could eventually take a 22-point victory, even if the Utes were playing against an Air Force team picked to finish near the bottom of the Mountain West Conference standings.
The Utes didn't make a field goal until the game was nearly 8 minutes old and by halftime the Utes had more turnovers than baskets, had twice as many fouls as baskets and just one Ute had even scored a field goal.
However, thanks to some stellar defense and a large dose of Johnnie Bryant, the Utes captured a 58-36 victory over the Falcons in the Mountain West opener for both schools at the Huntsman Center.
Bryant scored 22 points off the bench and the Utes defense came up big in the second half in holding the Falcons to 16.7 percent shooting and just 13 total points.
Saturday's game was a perfect example of what coach Jim Boylen has been preaching all year that the Utes can win games even when they're struggling offensively as long as they play tough defense.
"I thought we hung in there when our offense wasn't going and our defense kept us going, which is the way we want to play," Boylen said. "We want to be a defensive team first and let our offense come around. If this team competes defensively, we have a chance to be a good team."
This Air Force team isn't as good as recent ones that won more than 20 games three of the last four years and were nationally ranked at times. Still, the Falcons came in with a 8-5 record and Boylen praised first-year coach Jeff Reynolds for the progress the team had made.
Boylen said the Falcons "are a very difficult team to play against" and that showed in the early going as the Utes couldn't do much against the Falcons' tight defense.
Before the game, Boylen had expressed concern with his team's second-half starts this year. However, Saturday's first-half start was dreadful as the Utes were 0-for-6 from the field with four turnovers and trailed 6-5 with just over 12 minutes left in the half.
That's when Bryant sank a 3-pointer from the left angle, which brought a big cheer from the crowd of 10,144.
Bryant hit four more threes before the half was over and helped the Utes take a 29-23 halftime lead. While Bryant was 5-for-8 from the field in the first half, the rest of the Ute team was 0-for-6.
"I was disappointed going into halftime," said Boylen, who was particularly peeved because the Utes gave up an open 3-pointer and a layup just before the buzzer.
"We talked about it and I thought we made a couple of good adjustments on the pick and roll and we were pretty solid in the second half," he said.
With Bryant on the bench to start the second half, Shaun Green hit three straight baskets, including a 3-pointer, to get the Utes off to a solid second-half start.
The Utes couldn't score for seven straight possessions and led just 38-31 midway through the second half when Luke Nevill made his only basket, on a dunk off a nice feed from Bryant.
Boylen has been critical of Nevill at times this year, but praised his center, who only attempted two shots and finished with seven points and 10 rebounds.
"That catch he made and that dunk was as big a play as there was in the game. I thought that got us going a little bit," Boylen said. "Luke occupies people down there. I don't think Luke gets enough credit for what he creates without scoring and that's his value."
Nevill's three-point play pushed the lead back to 10 and Tyler Kepkay and Bryant each made layups to give the Utes a 14-point lead that eventually grew to 24 by the end.
"I thought we really communicated," Boylen said. "One of the biggest problems with this team is we don't communicate like a family needs to, to be successful. I thought today we communicated."
Beside Bryant, no other players on either team scored in double figures as Lawrence Borha and Kepkay each scored eight and Green and Nevill each chipped in seven for Utah.
Andrew Henke led the Falcons with nine points off the bench, while leading scorer Tim Anderson was held to seven points on 1-of-7 from the field.
Next up for the Utes is a game against Dixie State on Wednesday as they have a bye in the MWC schedule next week. Then it's off to San Diego State for a game on Jan. 16.
GAME NOTES: Nevill became the 19th player in Ute history to score 1,000 points and grab 500 rebounds in a career as he finished with seven points and 10 rebounds on the day. He now has 1,000 points and 509 rebounds ... Luka Drca led the Utes in assists for the fourth straight game with five on the day as the Utes had 13 assists for their 16 baskets ... Utah won the rebound battle 33 to 18 ...The Utes sank 17-of-20 free throws, led by Borha's 8-of-9. The Falcons made just 8 of 13.
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