Only CBS Sports' sportscaster Seth Davis was upset Thursday night, as Utah took care of business in the dangerous 5/12 game, sending upstart Stephen F. Austin home 57-50. The Lumberjacks came into the game with only one player standing over 6-foot-7, so Utah took advantage with 7-foot-1 center Jakob Poeltl.
Utah didn't want it to be too easy, however, with 17 turnovers, 15 by the starting five, including six from senior guard Delon Wright. Additionally, Utah allowed the much smaller Lumberjacks to out-rebound them 29-26. Worse than that, SFA held an 11-4 edge on the offensive glass, leading to multiple second-chance opportunities. Utah forwards Chris Reyes and Brekkott Chapman combined for just one rebound.
But to offset the giveaways and second chance opportunities, the Utes fed Stephen F. Austin a steady diet of Austrian 7-footer Jakob Poeltl. The freshman turned in his most complete game of the season, tallying 18 points (on 7-of-7 shooting, 4-of-7 from the free throw line), eight rebounds, and five blocked shots. Poeltl patrolled the paint throughout the game, protecting the rim, and forcing the Lumberjacks' two leading scorers, Thomas Walkup and Jacob Parker, to deal with rejection. Even when he wasn't blocking shots, Poeltl's mere presence affected that game, as Walkup dribbled the ball of his leg on one second-half possession because he was wondering how in the world he was going to get the ball over the long Austrian.
Junior forward Jordan Loveridge scored 12 points, adding 5 rebounds, before fouling out. Loveridge shot 4-of-8 from the field, including 2-of-3 from three-point range.
Wright added 11 points, six rebounds, two assists, and three steals. While the All Pac-12 guard did have six turnovers, he also hit 7-of-8 from the free throw line, including two when SFA had cut Utah's lead to just two points.
Utah's team defense was strong all game, holding SFA 29.5 points under their season average of 79.5 points per game. The Lumberjacks' two Southland Conference Players of the Year, Parker (2014) and Walkup (2015), usually average over 29 points per game combined, but they were held to just 18 for the game. The Utes held SFA to 33.3 percent shooting and an even worse 19.2 percent from deep.
On the other side of the court, the vaunted Lumberjacks defense allowed the Utes to shoot 47.4 percent. So why was the game tight? Because Utah's turnovers and the SFA rebound margin accounted for the Southland Conference team getting 13 more shots than the Utes, something that needs to change quickly before a matchup with Georgetown on Saturday.
The game was the Runnin' Utes first in the NCAA Tournament since 2009, and the win was the program's first in the tourney since 2005. Just three years removed from the worst season (6-25) in the history of Utah's storied men's basketball program, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak has engineered a complete turnaround in what was a dragging program upon his arrival. Krystkowiak's teams have gone from 6-25 to 15-18 to 21-12 and now an on-going 25-8 with a Round of 64 victory.
Utah will next take on four-seed Georgetown on Saturday at 5:45 p.m. MT. The G-men survived their own scare from Eastern Washington of the Big Sky, but eventually pulled away for the 84-74 win. Georgetown, with a 21-point lead at one point, nearly crumbled under the EWU full-court press, but the Eagles couldn't hit baskets, even while they were forcing turnover after turnover. Ultimately, the higher seed had too much talent for the inexperienced Big Sky team.
Delon Wright entered the all-time Runnin' Utes record book last night, as he broke the 1,000 point barrier against Stephen F. Austin. Wright becomes just the 36th player to record more than 1,000 points in a career at Utah.