Photo courtesy of AP
Dominant defensive second half pushes Utah to victoryThe Utes, behind a superb second half defensive effort, rolled the Air Force Falcons 58-36 to open up conference play. The victory gives Utah a 1-0 conference record and improves their record to 9 wins and 4 losses on the season. It was Utah's 5th straight home victory and their biggest margin of victory over the Falcons in a few years.
Leading the Utes was Johnnie Bryant off the bench with a season high 22 points. In fact, Bryant was the only player on both teams to score 10 or more points, as both defenses disrupted the offensive flow of the game. But it was Utah's defense that proved to be too much for the Falcons, holding them to a season low 13 second half points and only 36 on the day -- the fewest points Air Force has scored all season.
On the offensive end, both teams had prolonged scoring droughts and didn't shoot the ball particularly well, uncommon for both squads. The Falcons shot only 31% from the field and behind the arc, while the Utes shot 41% from the field and connected on 37% of their threes.
The Falcons did hang around with Utah early, holding the Utes scoreless for a near eight minute stretch at the beginning of the game, but the Utes carried a six point lead into the half and never really looked back. Leading 40-31 with nine minutes left, Utah ended the game on an 18-5 run, winning by 22 points, making a statement that Utah will be tough to beat in conference play. And that statement was an important one to make, as last season the Utes struggled early in Mountain West play on their way to an eventual losing season.
What this game does signify, however, is the fact the Utes are moving in the right direction. Like Utah, Air Force is young and breaking in a new coach, but the talent is there for the Falcons. They played Wake Forest tough, have managed to win 8-games on the season and will make some noise once Mountain West play heats up. As for Utah, it gives them confidence heading into the meat of their schedule, something this team did not appear to have throughout last season. But most importantly, Utah bounced back nicely from a tough close loss to Gonzaga last week. There was definitely no New Year's hangover for Utah today.
What's next...Utah plays Dixie State, a tune-up game before the conference season really gets going.