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SALT LAKE CITY — A good defense may win championships, but a productive offense is the gears that keeps the engine running. And for the Runnin' Utes on Tuesday night against the visiting Fresno State Bulldogs, the gears had a hard time moving.
Both team played a tough defense throughout the course of the game, but nether team could get baskets to fall for much of the night. Utah started the night shooting 31% from the field in the first half but finished with a meager 39%, while Fresno State finished shooting 33% from the field.
Throughout it all, though, the Utes did just enough down the stretch to eke out a 55-50 win over Fresno State.
"It wasn't aesthetically pleasing unless you — if you really love defense it was a thing of beauty," Utah head coach Craig Smith said. "If you love offense, it was putrid. And that's part of it, that's just how it goes. We knew this was going to be a tough game."
Smith, who previously coached in the Mountain West Conference with Utah State, knew what to expect against the Bulldogs and tried to mix up the lineups to combat what Fresno State wanted to do. But regardless of the plan, Fresno State never made it easy on the Utes.
"They muck it up," Smith said. "They're No. 8 in the country in defensive field goal percentage for a reason. I didn't think we were at our best, certainly, offensively — the first half specifically I thought we were tentative and just not in attack mode — and they do that to you, but some of that was self inflicted."
Utah's (8-4, 1-1 Pac-12) Marco Anthony led the team in scoring with 11 points and six rebounds, and Lahat Thioune added 10 points and six rebounds as the only two players to score in double figures for the Utes in a low-scoring affair.
And though the shots didn't necessarily fall for the Utes, Utah got timely 3-pointers from David Jenkins Jr. and Rollie Worster to pull their team ahead in a game where neither led by more than 8 points. But at the end of the day, it was a much-needed win before the Christmas break and a nice conclusion to nonconference play.
"Really proud of our guys and obviously ecstatic to get that win going into Christmas break — a little bit of mojo and we needed it," Smith said.
The sole focus for the Utes Tuesday night was to stop 7-footer Orlando Robinson from having his way against a roster that was without the team's leading scorer Branden Carlson for the second-straight game due to health and safety protocols, as well as Dusan Mahorcic with an injury.
Utah forward Riley Battin was tasked with guarding Robinson for much of the night as Utah utilized a zone defense to limit the rest of the Fresno State (9-3) team. And though Robinson managed 7 points in the first half, Battin held his own against the 7-footer. He got some help defense every time Robinson touched the ball, which limited what the big was able to do in the post.
But that defense softened up a bit when Robinson got out behind the 3-point line. Robinson, who finished with 17 points, hit three 3-pointers behind the arc to give his team the extra boost it needed to combat the home team. The 3-point looks, though, were something Smith said the team was fine living with, knowing that he could do more damage in the post.
"You've just kind of got to play the odds and live with a few things and then make an adjustment from there, and that was our thing," Smith said. "If he's gonna make a couple 3s, then he's gonna make a couple of 3s, and we'll live with that and we'll adjust after that.
"I thought we did a heck of a job on him and he still had 17, but five of those were late when we just kind of changed some things up in what we were doing."
And though the defensive stand largely worked, it was Utah's lack of scoring that hurt the team's ability to stay ahead. Fresno State used a 13-2 run to take its largest lead of the night of 6 points with just over five minutes left in the first half. But little by little Utah chipped back at the lead and trailed by 1 point at the halftime break, 23-22.
Utah continued that momentum to closeout the first half with an improved second half performance where the team shot 48% from the field and scored 33 points to take the lead. But Utah will be counting down the days until Carlson's return.