Everybody knew Utah’s season-opening, 9-of-10 shooting pace would not last forever. The Utes' nine-minute stretch without a field goal in the second half never seemed like it would end.
Utah's extremes of offensive performance Thursday night added up to a 75-61 basketball victory over Maine at the Huntsman Center, leading to a clear conclusion: This degree of inconsistency won't work against better opponents than a Black Bears team that went 6-26 last season.
“It's not time to jump overboard or do anything crazy; we've just got a lot of work to do,” Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
The problem is the same as the cure, going forward. “Playing the whole game,” said guard Parker Van Dyke, anticipating a 40-minute battle Monday at Minnesota.
Krystkowiak is 8-0 in openers, but this was not the usual, bench-clearing exercise. Those opportunities will come against the likes of Mississippi Valley State and Florida A&M, but Maine would not cooperate. After absorbing Utah's initial flurry that was enough to decide the outcome, the Black Bears made life difficult for the Utes with an unconventional 1-1-3 zone defense.
Senior guard Sedrick Barefield led the Utes with 18 points, although he made 1 of 10 shots during a long stretch of the game. Sophomore forward Donnie Tillman scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half, before being hit with foul trouble. Junior guard Isaiah White scored 24 for the Black Bears.
Maine never got closer than nine points in the second half, but that mild rally seemed like a letdown for Utah. The Utes repeated their theme from last week's 96-76 exhibition win over College of Idaho. In that episode, the visitors outscored Utah 47-38 in the second half; Thursday, Maine had a 33-30 edge. Neither case stemmed from Krystkowiak's substitutions.
You'll hear this all season, or until the pattern is altered: When the other team is scoring, the Utes struggle offensively. This team needs defensive stops in order to run, and when that happens, the whole operation functions nicely. Otherwise, Krystkowiak said, “Things start to compound a little bit.”
The Utes did their own compounding at the start, hitting their first seven shots – including five 3-pointers – in taking a 20-8 lead. And less than eight minutes into the game, Utah had gone 9 of 10 (the miss was a Barefield 3-pointer that went in and out of the basket) and scored 25 points against a Maine team that had allowed only 27 first-half points in Tuesday's 62-50 loss at Denver.
Utah immediately cooled off, scoring five points in the next six minutes. In the second half, Utah went more than nine minutes without a field goal, until Barefield made consecutive runners.
Shot selection was an issue, with the Utes forcing some 3-point attempts instead of taking them in the flow of the offense. Of Utah's 17 baskets in the first half, 13 came via assists. In the second half, too much fouling affected Utah's defensive effort and the offense was not as crisp, as Maine was able to settle into its zone.
After their phenomenal start, the Utes went 2 of 18 from 3-point range before Van Dyke hit from the corner, giving him 11 points.
Ute center Jayce Johnson looked rusty, having missed about five weeks of practice with a broken bone in his foot. Johnson punctuated his return to action with a late dunk, however, and finished with eight rebounds. Graduate transfer Novak Topalovic, Johnson’s replacement in the starting lineup, posted nine points and 10 rebounds.