LOS ANGELES — While the wintry weather back home was frightful, things were just delightful for the Utah Utes in California. They opened a two-game Pac-12 road trip with a 77-70 victory at USC on Wednesday.
“I think this time of year it’s not necessarily a time to do a whole lot of talking," said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. "From my experiences, if you play really hard and play collective team basketball you’ve got a chance on the road and our guys did a nice job. We did both of those things extremely well."
Krystkowiak also noted that the Utes had a "heck of a first half."
After exchanging seven-point runs to open the game, the Utes pulled ahead for good with an 8-0 burst that included scores by Timmy Allen, Riley Battin and Jayce Johnson. It ushered in what eventually blossomed into a 37-17 lead for the Utes late in the first half.
Freshman Both Gach, making his first start since Dec. 29, proved quite a spark. He led all scorers at halftime with 11 as Utah held a 37-23 advantage. Donnie Tillman had eight points at the break and Johnson added seven.
The Utes held a 24-13 edge in rebounding and held the Trojans to 34.5 percent shooting from the field. USC big men Bennie Boatwright and Nick Rakocevic, who came in averaging a combined 33.5 points, had two points apiece in the opening half.
After losing to Oregon and Oregon State last week in the Huntsman Center, Krystkowiak said the message on the trip to USC and UCLA was just to make sure the team’s focus was on playing hard. The Utes were outscored 44-16 in points off turnovers in the losses to the Ducks and Beavers.
“It’s really going to start with us taking care of the basketball and finding some road tempo and then defending some really talented players,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve got to do it without fouling. We have to be really locked in on the road.”
Krystkowiak also addressed the need for a “next-play mentality” and greater toughness, joking they’ve done all kinds of tricks in an effort to get things accomplished.
Mental toughness, physical toughness and some smarts, he said, were necessary to put an end to the ebbs and flows that have stymied the Utes this season.
“We can’t be on a rollercoaster ride with our effort,” said Krystkowiak, who emphasized that it starts with getting stops and taking care of the ball.
Utah didn’t hit any serious twists and turns in topping USC, although the final margin turned out to be less than completely comfortable. Krystkowiak said it was a streaky game, but credited the Utes for making enough plays down the stretch.
The Utes came out strong in the second half. Johnson scored the first five points to extend the lead to 42-23. After the Trojans cut the lead to 14, Parker Van Dyke hit two 3-pointers in an 8-0 run that included a basket by Sedrick Barefield.
Leading 50-28, Utah weathered another five-point flurry by USC and took its biggest separation of the game at 56-33 following a 6-0 spurt that ended with a 3-pointer by Barefield.
USC answered with a rally that cut the deficit to 58-44 as the game entered its final nine minutes.
Allen then netted a 3-point play for the Utes and Barefield added a 3-pointer with 7:27 to go, matching a long shot by USC’s Jonah Mathews.11 comments on this story
Things got more interesting toward the finish. However, nothing materialized to cost the Utes their third consecutive road victory. USC climbed back into contention at 66-59, but Van Dyke nailed a 3-pointer with 1:49 remaining to end the threat. Tillman contributed two free throws shortly thereafter to make it 71-59.
Utah was never seriously challenged the rest of the way.
Gach finished with 15 points, while Johnson had a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. The balanced attack also included 13 points from Barefield. Tillman contributed 12 with Battin and Van Dyke each adding nine.
Utah (12-10, 6-4) returns to action Saturday at UCLA (3 p.m., FOX). The Bruins (12-11, 5-5) dropped an 84-73 decision to Colorado at Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday.