Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak watched Gary Payton II play at nearby Salt Lake Community College the previous two seasons, but he couldn’t justify offering Payton a scholarship.
Though the decision has worked out for both parties, Krystkowiak and the No. 9 Utes will get a glimpse of what they passed on Thursday night when they look to ruin Oregon State’s best home start in school history.
Payton, the son of the NBA Hall of Famer bearing the same name, wasn’t highly recruited coming out of SLCC before choosing Oregon State, his father’s alma matter.
Krystkowiak admitted had he realized Payton would transition so well that he would’ve kept a scholarship open. Payton leads the Beavers in scoring (13.1 points per game) and rebounding (7.9) while ranking third in the nation with 3.0 steals per game.
That defense is something Krystkowiak could have used early against California on Sunday. Utah (20-4, 10-2 Pac-12) let the Bears shoot 54 percent over the first 15 minutes, then gave up just 29 points over the final 25 en route to a 76-61 win.
”This was the first time in a long time (our opponent was) scoring in the early phase of their offense,” Krystkowiak said. ”We just didn’t have much energy and they were playing a heck of a lot harder offensively than we were defensively.”
The Utes recovered to win a fourth straight, as Jakob Poeltl scored 18 points while Delon Wright added 16.
”When guys are able to get steals and easy layups or block a shot and get easy fast-break points, it helps the whole team,” Wright said. ”Our energy seems to rise.”
Utah leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense at 56.4 points per game, but the Beavers sit right behind with an average of 57.5. Oregon State (16-9, 7-6), which didn’t return a single starter from the 2013-14 team, is 14-0 at home and its next victory at Gill Coliseum will set a school record for most in a season there.
The Beavers, though, have dropped all four road contests during a six-game stretch after falling 68-55 at Southern California on Saturday. They hit 32.8 percent from the field and have shot just 37.6 percent over their last five.
“I challenged the guys not to let fatigue be an excuse,” first-year coach Wayne Tinkle said. “We’re only playing twice a week. Our guys have to find a way to get tough, keep locking arms and keep battling.”
Oregon State has a short bench, and all five starters played at least 30 minutes. Three reserves logged time, but Justin Stangel played only two minutes.
Langston Morris-Walker scored 17 points but Payton was held to 11 while also recording a season high-tying six steals.
”We’ve got what we got,” Tinkle said. ”We’ve just got to rest up, get home and get ready for the next one. We’re coming back to protect Gill Coliseum.”
The Beavers have held visiting opponents to an average of 52.6 points and 34.4 percent shooting. They’ve won nine of 10 home meetings all-time with Utah, including both since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
Utah has won back-to-back matchups, both at home. Brandon Taylor scored a career-high 23 points while Wright added 14 in an 80-69 victory Jan. 4, 2014.