No. 25 Utah made things interesting against Ball State Saturday night, letting the Mid-American Conference school hang around until late in the second half before putting them away with a 22-4 run. Ball State, which cut Utah's lead to just five by halftime, was within four points with less than eight minutes to go, but the Utes turned up the defense and got some late run-outs to push the lead to a more comfortable margin.
"We were running a little bit in mud defensively, and, all of a sudden, it's like being in a boxing match and getting punched," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "You kind of wake up. I saw a little sense of urgency on our guys' faces to complete possessions."
Four Utah starters scored in double figures, led by point guard Brandon Taylor's 19 points. Freshman center Jakob Poeltl put up a double-double in his Utes debut with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Forward Jordan Loveridge tallied a very efficient 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting, 2-for-2 from deep, continuing his torrid three-point shooting. Including the exhibition game against Pacific (Ore.), Loveridge has yet to miss a shot from behind the arc.
Guard Delon Wright suffed the box score, as usual, with 13 points, four rebounds, eight assists, four steals, and three blocked shots. It was Wright asserting himself late in the game, especially defensively, that helped Utah finally put the Cardinals away.
"We just knew we needed some urgency," Wright said. "They did a good job of keeping this game close. We were just trying to find a way to get some stops and push the lead up."
The Utes finished the game shooting a blistering 59.2% from the field, 66.7% from behind the three-point line, but Utah struggled mightily from the free throw line all game. The Utes made just 26-of-40 (65%). Poeltl, who was awarded 16 charity tosses, made just half, but every Utes player missed at least one with the exception of Loveridege, who was a perfect 4-for-4. Worse even than the misses, Utah was called for not one but two lane violations that wiped away made free throws.
While Utah had a 42-14 edge in the paint and a 35-22 rebounding margin, the Utes could never quite use their tremendous size advantage to sustain the kind of run that would make this game a walk. Instead, Ball State kept pumping up shots from the perimeter and hitting them to keep it close and keep the home team from putting any distance between them. The Cardinals shot 45.5% from three-point range and made 10 from behind the arc.
"We couldn't get easy baskets," Wright said. "We were playing into their game and having to play defense. Turnovers sucked the life out of us and the coaches were getting on us. We just tried to get some easy baskets and not turn the ball over."
Cardinals newcomer forward Sean Sellers lit up the Utes for 26 points on 4-of-6 from downtown. Lightning quick guard Zavier Turner recorded 14 points, but also committed 5 turnovers without an assist. Fellow guard Jeremie Tyler put up 12 points to go along with four assists.
One of the questions in the offseason for the Utes was why a player with the talent of a Princeton Onwas would transfer out of the program, especially with high expectations. Kenneth Ogbe may have provided a bit of an answer, as the sophomore from Germany scored nine points off the bench, including a wicked baseline drive and dunk, as well well as back-to-back three-pointers at a critical juncture in the game.
For the young Cardinals, it's back to the drawing board with another road loss. Last season, Ball State went 0-16 away from their home arena in Muncie, Ind.
While they struggled at times, Utah did open the season with an 18-point win. However, there were plenty of areas for Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak and his staff to clean up and improve in the next few days prior to next week's trip to Viejas Arena for a Top 25 showdown with No. 16/17 San Diego State. (The number one concern being free throws, especially for a player like Poeltl who will draw plenty of fouls this season and needs to hit his charity tosses to avoid the Hack-a-Jak.) The Aztecs laid the wood to Cal State Northridge 79-58 in the EA Sports Maui Invitational. Utah (1-0, 0-0) and SDSU (1-0, 0-0) tip off Tuesday at 2 p.m. MT from San Diego.