Abilene Christian went to the NCAA Tournament last season in large part because of its defense.
The Wildcats ranked fifth nationally in scoring defense at 60.4 points per game and 26th in defensive efficiency. By those metrics alone, it was a certainty that Abilene Christian was going to come into the Huntsman Center on Tuesday and defend. Craig Smith knew it, so he sought to do something about it.
As the University of Utah head coach prepared his team for its season-opener, he had his players go 5-on-6 and 5-on-7 during practice on Saturday and Sunday in an effort to replicate what they would see on Tuesday.
That tactic proved effective. Utah was not exceptionally sharp for 40 minutes, but it settled in enough to find holes and open looks, especially in the second half when it pulled away for a 70-56 victory, giving Smith his first victory as Utes head coach.
“You just feel like they’re everywhere,” Smith said. “They get you going so fast that maybe you’re looking, wondering where they’re coming from instead of your eyes on the rim to finish the play. They get you sped up a little bit, but I think, for the most part, we executed our stuff pretty well.”
Utah shot just 38.7% from the floor and 30.4% from 3-point range while committing 20 turnovers, but nothing that occurred Tuesday came as a shock to anyone. This is a first-year coach with a significantly new roster at his disposal. Everyone is trying to see what fits and what doesn’t as Abilene Christian served as a sneaky-tough opener for a Utah team with questions to answer, especially on offense.
The key stretch of this game came early in the second as Abilene Christian got to within three at 39-36 with 16:11 to play. From there, Marco Anthony canned a midrange jumper from just outside the lane, and David Jenkins Jr. knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key, plus the foul.
Jenkins hit the ensuing free throw out of the under-16 media timeout to push the Utes lead to nine at 45-36. The Wildcats had previously answered a small handful of Utah mini-spurts, but they had no answer for this one. ACU never got back within seven as the lead ballooned to as many as 20 with 4:44 to play.
Jenkins, a UNLV transfer who scored the 1,600th point of his career on Tuesday, led five players in double figures with 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 4-for-9 from 3-point range.
“I think we felt good as a team,” Jenkins said. “I think we were prepared. We were even overprepared. We were ready for every action they had on the offensive and defensive end, so that’s something we have to bring with us each and every game.”
A straightaway 3-pointer from Jenkins opened the scoring for Utah, and he was consistent all night in his shot selection, but also in his aggression. That latter factor rubbed off on teammates and Utah’s two primary bigs, Branden Carlson (14 points, nine rebounds) and Dusan Mahorcic (11 points, eight rebounds), both offered optimism in terms of rebounding and physicality.
Both Gach eligibility case remains in limbo
A fourth-year junior who transferred back to Utah after spending last season at the University of Minnesota, Both Gach sat out Tuesday’s opener while he and the Utes await an NCAA ruling on his eligibility status.
As a two-time transfer, Gach, who spent the 2019 and 2020 seasons at Utah, does not fall under the NCAA’s new first-time transfer legislation, which allows for immediate eligibility.
There is no timetable for the NCAA to produce a decision, so Utah has no choice but to continue waiting. Gach went through Utah’s summer program, as well as preseason. To that end, Smith has said that if and when Gach is deemed eligible, he will be inserted into the lineup.
Utah does not play again until Saturday night when it hosts Sacramento State. Bethune Cookman pays a visit to the Huntsman Center on Monday evening.