Runnin’ Utes pick up first win of season

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

With their backs against the wall and the threat of the worst start in 54 years staring them in the eyes, the Runnin’ Utes responded. Trailing 39-30 to Rice University (2-4) at halftime Saturday night, the Utes picked up some much needed intensity on the defensive end of the court to stymie the Owl attack and claim their first win of the season, 80-64.

When asked about what adjustments were made at halftime, U head coach Ray Giacoletti said he simply had to challenge his players.

“It’s just pride,” Giacoletti said. “There comes to a point where you have to ask, do you have heart? Do you have passion? Do you want to go fight?”

A lot of that fight and defensive intensity came from power forward Shaun Green, who was shoved by Rice’s Paulius Packevicius early in the second half. The incident forced the referee to call a technical foul and prompted Green to pick up his game considerably. The sophomore spurred the Utes (1-3) on a 15-0 run to take a 55-46 lead and finished the game with career-highs in both points (17) and rebounds (9).

“Shaun to me was our MVP,” Giacoletti said. “He was our vocal guy in the locker room. He wasn’t going to allow people to not give a great effort. He’s matured, and tonight was very evident of that.”

Green’s maturity was not the only thing working in Utah’s favor. Junior guard Johnnie Bryant netted yet another superb performance for the U, tying his career-high of 28 points and dishing out seven assists to lead the Utah offense.

Meanwhile, Utah big man Luke Nevill recorded his best game of the season, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.

Despite winning the game and showing a tremendous amount of poise in the comeback, the Utes were unable to find an answer for Rice’s Morris Almond. The nifty small forward opened up the contest making his first eight field-goal attempts and first seven foul shots to finish with 42 points.

“We just wanted to do as good of a job as we could on Almond,” Giacoletti said. “We tried to play tough man-to-man defense, but he got into a rhythm early and after that he was pretty hard to stop.”

The U defense isn’t the first that Almond has used and abused this season. The senior has shredded Gonzaga, Colorado State and Oregon on his way to a 29.5 point-per-game average.

Utah was able to find an answer for Almond when it mattered though, holding him and the rest of the Owls to a meager 25 points on 35 percent shooting in the second half.

“We’ve got to sustain that energy that we had in that second half (on Saturday),” Bryant said. “I really believe that this will be the start of something special this season. We’ve been busting our tail, and now we know what it takes to win.”

Utah will try to keep its momentum going this week when it finishes off a four-game home swing against Weber State on Wednesday and Washington State on Saturday.

Christopher Peddecord

Johnnie Bryant passes around a defender in the Utes’ Saturday night victory over Rice at the Huntsman Center. Bryant led the team with 28 points and seven assists.