SALT LAKE CITY – Utah returned most of its key contributors from a season ago, but those players might find themselves in a battle for minutes soon enough. That's because the Utes' freshmen class continue to make the most of their time on the court.
Freshman forward Kyle Kuzma scored a team-high 14 points and freshman center Jakob Poeltl added a team-high 10 rebounds to lead Utah to an 85-48 victory over Texas-Pan American on Wednesday night.
It marked the second straight game Kuzma has led the Utes in scoring. After barely seeing the court against Ball State and San Diego State, he is quickly evolving into one of Utah's top offensive weapons.
"The coaching staff has been preaching to me just to play my game, so I've been getting a lot more confidence," Kuzma said.
Poeltl has been steady in making an impact on both ends of the court since earning a starting spot to open the season. The Austrian 7-footer is not shy about trying to make his mark around the basket and it's paying off for both him and the Utes.
"I just try to bring energy," Poeltl said. "Go to the glass every time. Go for every rebound. Except for the beginning, I finished my looks around the basket."
Delon Wright added 12 for Utah, which opened the school's annual Thanksgiving tournament with a second straight win built on the foundation of potent offense and stifling defense.
The Utes (3-1) shot 59.1 percent (26 of 44) from the field and 61.5 percent (8 of 13) from distance to hand the Broncs (3-1) their first loss of the season. Utah also dominated around the basket, outscoring UTPA 30-14 in the paint and outrebounding the Broncs 35-22.
Shaquille Boga had a game-high 16 points to lead UTPA. Janari Joesaar added 11 points for the Broncs, who struggled to keep pace with Utah after leading early.
Utah used a 27-6 run to rally and take control before halftime. The Utes scored on nine straight possessions at one point, starting with back-to-back baskets from Brandon Taylor and culminating in a layup from Poeltl over a 5½-minute stretch.
Overall, Utah shot 63 percent (17 of 27) from the field in the first half.
With his team trailing 13-10, Wright drained a 3-pointer to ignite Utah's decisive run. Poeltl then hit back-to-back baskets to give Utah a 17-15 lead. Once Poeltl capped the lengthy spurt with another basket, the Utes held a commanding 39-21 lead with 3:54 left before halftime.
"It started with our defense," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "I know we started off a little slow. Three out of our first seven possessions were turnovers. Once we started guarding a little bit, we got out in transition and pushed and I thought our guys moved the ball really well. Had a high assist total during that time. Attacked the glass."
UTPA started strong behind hot shooting from Boga. The senior guard hit his first three shots from the field to help the Broncs charge out to a 13-10 lead with 13:15 left in the first half. Overall, UTPA connected 7 of 11 field-goal attempts to start the game
It all unraveled before halftime. The Broncs shot just 1 of 9 from the field over the final 8 minutes of the half, with the lone basket coming on Joesaar's 3-pointer with 2:49 remaining. Utah closed the half on an 8-0 run following Joesaar's basket - fueled by a pair of Kuzma dunks - to take a 50-26 halftime lead.
UTPA could do nothing to draw closer after halftime. The Utes led by as many as 37 points in the second half while limiting the Broncs to 8-of-25 shooting (32 percent) from the field.
Utah: Freshman forward Kyle Kuzma has averaged 16.5 points over the past two games after scoring just one point in his first two games. . Utah is now 16-3 all-time versus current WAC teams. The Utes had a 39-5 advantage in bench points over UTPA.
UTPA: The Broncs were picked to finish seventh in the WAC preseason media poll. . At 3-1, UTPA is off to its best start since the 2006-07 season. . Janari Joesaar scored in double figures for the fourth consecutive game. . The Broncs gave up 16 turnovers, which led to 17 points for Utah.
CLEANING IT UP
Utah finished with 14 turnovers. The Utes were able to keep control, though, when it mattered. After turning over the ball three times on their first seven possessions, Utah had a stretch in the game where they did not commit a turnover for 23 straight possessions.
UTPA averaged 45.6 percent shooting from 3-point range during the team's 3-0 start. It was a different story against the Utes. The Broncs could not crack Utah's tough perimeter defense and shot just 20 percent (3 of 15) from outside.
Utah hosts North Dakota on Friday.
Texas-Pan American plays Alabama State on Friday.