Photo courtesy of Associated Press
Utes rollUtah opened the preseason NIT with a rather easy 77-64 victory over the High Point Panthers Tuesday night. Utah was led by Luke Nevill, who scored 18 points on 6 of 12 shooting and had 10 rebounds. The game was fairly close in the first half, but Utah exploded in the second, stretching their lead to as many as 21 points before settling for the 13 point victory. High Point, led by Arizona Reid, struggled offensively for most of the night and never really gave Utah a fight after halftime, where the Utes clinged to only a 4-point lead.
Utah's offense continued its impressive march, as the Utes shot 54% from the field -- 67% in the second half -- and torched the Panthers for 77 points. Along with Nevill's 18, sophomore Stephen Weigh tallied 11 points, while Kim Tillie had 12.
After a sluggish start, which saw High Point lead for most of the early part of the first half, Utah finally awoke and built a lead of 7 points before the Panthers hit a 3 prior to halftime. In the second half, though, it was all Utah, as the Utes outscored High Point by 9 points and coasted to victory.
Defense steps up
While Utah's defense didn't play a flawless game, it looked vastly improved over last year's results. Utah held the Panthers to only 44% shooting in the second half and 30% from behind the arc, progress over last year's abysmal perimeter defense.
The Utes also recorded 10 steals and held High Point's supporting cast in check for most of the night. While Arizona Reid managed his 19 points, no other player, outside of Mike Jefferson -- who had 17 -- was capable of consistent scoring. The rest of the Panthers' players failed to reach double digits in points, Utah had four.
High Point a good test
A few years ago, High Point was not a very successful D1 program. Today, however, it's far different. The Panthers were picked to finish first in the Big South -- the same conference where Winthrop plays, last year's NCAA Tournament darling -- and have a boat load of talent returning from last year's 22-win team. In their opener, High Point gave Charlotte a tough game, before finally succumbing to a 6 point loss.
The impressiveness of Utah's defensive effort, though, should not be ignored. High Point entered the game on the heels of one of their most successful offensive seasons in school history. The Panthers averaged 75 points last season, which ranked 56th in the nation, while shooting 46% from the field. That 46% is on par for what held the Panthers to Tuesday night. Though for a team that gave up 50% (322 in the nation) from the field last year, it does show an extensive difference.
Quotes from the game
"You have to give (High Point) credit. I think that team is very well coached and I respect what they do. They're banged up and they're small, but I thought they battled. In the second half, we were dominating at times. In the first half we were awful at times. It looked like we were pretty good offensively in the second half."
"The way (Luke Nevill) creates for us is great. To me his assist number is wrong because he creates something, then passes it and there is another pass before the basket. He creates very well."
"Johnnie (Bryant) has really embraced his role coming off the bench. Tonight, I think he really proved why he is good off the bench. He can score at any time. He can play the one and the two and he played more one tonight than he's played. To me Johnnie Bryant is a Sixth-Man Award type of guy."
Utah Guard Johnnie Bryant
"My role on the team is to play the sixth-man spot and to make open shots. I try to be aggressive and use my strengths. My strength is shooting the ball. I got it going and I kept shooting until I missed. I just took what the defense gave me."
Utah Center Luke Nevill
"The first half I was missing shots and taking softer shots away from the basket. Against an undersized team like this, I should've taken shots and gone straight to the basket. At halftime, I was upset with my play, but I got some motivation from the coaches and my teammates. I tried to improve on my first half and just come in and compete."
High Point Head Coach Bart Lundy
"When we saw the schedule come out and we had Utah, I don't think we thought they would be this tough and this good, this early. What we scouted was a team that was a bit soft from last year and a team you could pressure and get them out of things. That is not the team that (Utah Head Coach Jim Boylen) has put together and I give Coach Boylen a lot of credit. They are tough, they are disciplined and they've got a good combination with (Luke) Nevill and all those guys that can shoot it. You can't guard (Nevill) one-on-one and when we doubled him they did a good job of getting it out for extra passes and making shots. We got down and missed some shots early in the second half and they made some shots. We'll regroup and come back tomorrow."
High Point Forward Arizona Reid
"In the beginning, they weren't playing as physical as they started playing late in the first half and the whole second half. I wasn't intending for them to come out and be as physical as they were." "We just have to come out at halftime thinking we're going to continue to play hard and have no let-ups. I think that's the biggest problem with our team. We come out at halftime slow, walking around, not playing hard defense, not setting up the offense and other teams come and hit us in the mouth. So we'll have to work on that."
Bring on Washington
While High Point offered Utah a decent test, it will be Washington that provides Utah fans with the knowledge of how good this Utes team really is. Though these Huskies aren't the same team Utah faced in the 2004 Great Alaskan Shootout, they're a talented bunch who rolled N.J.I.T. by 41 points last night.
I don't know what to expect tonight, but I feel pretty good Utah won't roll over. This team is talented and has good coaching, which typically yields good results. They might not beat Washington, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least if they did. A victory over the Huskies would punch Utah's ticket to New York for the preseason NIT Final Four, and a probable match-up with Texas A&M. Here's to that happening and Utah jumping out to a 3-0 record. However, if I had to bet on it, I would say Washington is victorious.