SALT LAKE CITY — Coming off a two-game losing skid at home, Utah opened up its Los Angeles road trip with something to prove.
The Utes jumped out to an early 7-0 lead and never let up en route to a 77-70 win against the home team USC Trojans. Utah (12-10, 6-4) led by as much as 23 points in the second half, but allowed USC (13-10, 6-4), a team that has won four of its last five games of conference play coming into Wednesday, some life late in the game.
Trailing by double digits in what appeared to be a blowout with just under 10 minutes left to play, USC’s Jonah Matthews hit two of the team’s three consecutive 3-pointers to cut Utah’s lead to 14 points on a soft defensive approach by the Utes. Matthews would again hit a 3-pointer out of a timeout called by Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak to cut into Utah’s lead.
Utah would answer back before the Trojans deployed a full-court press to force Utah turnovers. That and a four-minute scoring drought allowed the Trojans to cut Utah’s lead to seven points. But Utah staved off the comeback by hitting 8-of-9 free throws in the final three minutes to claim the victory.
Freshman Both Gach earned his first start of conference play Wednesday, and he didn’t disappoint in the first half. Gach opened up the game with a pair of buckets to start a 7-0 run that forced USC to take a timeout in the first two minutes. He ended the half with a contested corner 3-pointer and then transition 3-pointer after a steal on the ensuing play.
The freshman guard finished the half with 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting to lead Utah, which took a 14-point lead into the half. Utah led by as much as 20 points in the half as the Trojans shot an abysmal 35 percent from the floor on a slower-paced game that favored the Utes.
Gach would only score four more points in the second half, all free throws late in the game, to finish with a team-high 15 points. He was joined in double digits by senior guard Sedrick Barefield and junior forward-center Jayce Johnson, who both finished with 13 points each, and sophomore Donnie Tillman, who finished with 12 points. Johnson finished the night with a double-double with 13 rebounds.
The Utes also limited second-chance point opportunities for the Trojans by collecting 17 defensive rebounds out of Utah’s 24 at the break. That was due to the physical nature of Johnson, who finished the half with seven points and seven rebounds. He also drew two flagrant fouls against USC, including one against Nick Rakocevic, the Trojans’ second-leading scorer.
Rakocevic picked up two fouls in the first half and was forced to sit the bench as Utah built its lead. The junior forward finished with 10 points and nine rebounds in the loss.
Utah will next travel down the road to take on UCLA at the Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, Feb. 9 at 3 p.m. MST. The game will be broadcast on FOX and ESPN 700.