DENVER -- As the first half came to an end at the Pepsi Center on Saturday night, Gonzaga put its foot on Utah’s neck and made it surrender as the Bulldogs advanced to the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga’s 82-59 victory over Utah in the second round began with a gradual rise late in the first half, a stretch that commenced when Utah’s Jakob Poeltl picked up his second foul of the game with 6:38 to go before halftime. At the time, Gonzaga held a 31-25 lead. By halftime, the Bulldogs led 44-29 after a 13-4 run with Poeltl sidelined.
Kyle Wiltjer’s size made him an impossible matchup for Utah. Eric McClellan (game-high 22 points) hit a few 3-pointers during that run, and Utah still seemed unsure of how to stop Domantas Sabonis (19 points, 10 rebounds) and Wiltjer. When the Utes stuck to Sabonis, they gave Wiltjer room. When they helped on Wiltjer, McClellan drove or found space in the corner.
Utah entered the NCAA tournament with a 2-7 record when trailing at halftime. The Utes suffered a 31-point loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and lost six games before Saturday by an average of 18.8 points per game. When the Utes were down big, they tended to stay down.
Gonzaga forced Utah into nine first-half turnovers while maintaining the offensive edge that carried the Bulldogs to the West Coast Conference tournament title.
Saturday's performance proved that Mark Few’s program will pounce if there’s an opening. Poeltl’s departure because of first-half foul trouble created the opportunity Gonzaga needed to drag Utah into another lopsided loss.
Throughout the regular season, Mark Few's team had failed to demonstrate the offensive proficiency that ultimately helped them control the game on Saturday. And the evening’s defensive effort -- Wiltjer, of all people, proved to be the team’s most important defender when he helped on Poeltl -- was absent when the Bulldogs blew halftime leads in losses to Saint Mary’s, BYU and Arizona (10 points) earlier this season.
That collapse didn’t happen Saturday, however, in a dominant victory over a higher seed.