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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah started out the Craig Smith era with a fight on the court.
No actual punches were thrown (at least intentionally), but the visiting Abilene Christian Wildcats were in for the long haul with an aggressive style of defense that pushed Utah to its limits all game. The team lived up to its Wildcats name and scratched and clawed the entire night.
And the refs were obliged to allow it.
"It was a physical, rugged game," Smith said. "But you know what? To win in March, that's how the game is officiated."
It was the type of game where the opposing team isn't sad to see the final whistle blow at the end of the night, regardless of the final score — just ask Texas after their first-round loss to the Wildcats in the most recent NCAA Tournament. But for the home team, Smith's era at Utah started out with a 70-56 win.
"What an exciting day for the Runnin' Utes and for all of our guys and our staff," Smith said. "So great to be in the Huntsman and be back in front of fans — want to thank the fans for coming out and supporting our guys. We have unbelievable respect for Abilene Christian.
"To get this win was big for us. I thought it was a great team effort, and it's always good when you get the dub."
To prepare for the game, Smith said the team scrimmaged against six or seven guys on defense to get a sense of the smothering style of defense the Wildcats would bring when they played the Utes. And for the players, who looked most in sync for the first game of the season, the final result Tuesday night showed that the preparation paid off.
"They're a really aggressive team, defensively," said former Utah State guard Rollie Worster, who finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and six assists in his first showing in a Utes uniform. "They're all over the place in the rotations — are really fast too. So I think playing versus six or seven guys helped us be strong with the ball and just make the right play and the easy play."
"They're a gritty team," added David Jenkins Jr. "They get after it; they're scrappy, they force 20 turnovers a game, and we knew we had to be prepared for that."
Tuesday was never going to be a perfect night for the home team; Smith admitted as much in the lead up to the season opener. Abilene Christian forced Utah into 20 turnovers on the night, but the Runnin' Utes were better in other areas to make up for the team's mistakes.
Most notably, Utah outrebounded Abilene Christian 55-29 and had 23 second-chance points, which is a drastic change from the lackluster rebounding effort of the program's last few years under Larry Krystkowiak. Veteran center Branden Carlson, who is one of a handful of players to stay at Utah in the transition, made the most of his playing time before fouling out of the game.
Carlson was one rebound short of a double-double in his first game of the season and finished with 14 points and nine rebounds. But more important than his stat line was the confidence and physicality Carlson played with against the Wildcats. From his corner 3-point make to his physical post play, Carlson gave the Utes everything it needed to combat the Wildcats.
Utah controlled a 7-point lead at the halftime break in a balanced style of play before Abilene Christian cut the lead to 2 with 17 minutes left to play in the second half. But Utah went on a quick run and kept distance on the Wildcats the remainder of the game before pulling away late to claim a 14-point home win to start the young season.
With just under five minutes left to play in regulation, Utah built up its largest lead of the night to 20 points and never looked back — outworking the Wildcats.
The Runnin' Utes had four players finish the night in double figures and were led in the win by David Jenkins' 15 points that included four 3-pointers. Jenkins set the tone early for the Utes and added some consistency among a Wildcats team that pushed the tempo and forced Utah to make contested shots.
"David, maybe not bailed us out, but he made a couple of big shots early," Smith said. "I wouldn't say our offense was bad, but it just wasn't — we weren't settled in — and he made a couple of big 3s to kind of get us off to that lead where you're not playing from behind."
But for Jenkins, it was just doing whatever he could do to help the a team that he said is unselfish.
"I was feeling pretty good myself," Jenkins said. "I mean, just because of the simple fact of my teammate hyping me up each and every day. Some of those shots that I take, that's just coming from them; most of the time I like to pass them up. But they tell me shoot the ball because they have trust and believe in me.
"I think we felt good as a team. I think we came in prepared — we came in kind of overprepared; we were ready for every action they had on the offense and on the defensive end."
Utah returns to action Saturday (7:30 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Networks) as they welcome to the Huntsman Center Sacramento State ahead of the team's November tournament, the Sunshine Slam.