The first win of Brandon Laird’s head coaching era at Sacramento State came against an NAIA opponent that was clearly overmatched.
That hardly mattered to the Hornets, who travel to Salt Lake City to take on the Utah Utes on Saturday night.
Less than a week after their previous head coach, Brian Katz, abruptly retired due to health concerns, the Sacramento State players were excited to present Laird with the game ball and an impromptu water bottle shower in the locker room to celebrate the 89-59 home win over William Jessup. Laird had been the Hornets’ associate head coach for nine years before getting the unexpected bump up to interim head coach.
“I really appreciate you guys,” Laird told his players as shown in a team video. “This is just the start.”
The Hornets’ next matchup will be much more difficult than their season-opener, which saw them open on a 30-2 run, get points from 12 different guys and shoot 57 percent (12-21) from the 3-point line.
The Utes made a coaching change over the offseason after a few stale seasons in the Pac-12, and they too celebrated their new coach’s first victory at their helm.
Led by transfer David Jenkins Jr.’s game-high 15 points, Utah earned a 70-56 victory over Abilene Christian, a team that picked up a win in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
“I think we felt good as a team,” Jenkins said. “I think we were prepared. We were even overprepared. We were ready for every action they had on the offensive and defensive end, so that’s something we have to bring with us each and every game.”
Utah coach Craig Smith, who replaced longtime coach Larry Krystkowiak, said he had “unbelievable respect” for ACU, so he certainly wasn’t overlooking them. Similar to Sac State, the Utes were excited to get that first victory regardless of the opponent.
“What an exciting day for the Runnin’ Utes and for all of our guys and our staff,” Smith said. “It’s so great to be in the Huntsman (Center) and to be back in front of fans.”
Smith said it felt like the Wildcats, the fifth-ranked defensive team in 2020-21, were throwing seven guys at them because of their suffocating pressure and experienced backcourt. They had to overcome 20 turnovers to pull away from ACU in the second half.
Rebounding was one big advantage for Utah, which enjoyed a 55-29 advantage on the boards, including a 22-8 margin on the offensive glass. That translated into 23 second-chance points.
The Utes also thrived off of a balanced offensive effort, which included six players scoring at least eight points.
Sacramento State and Utah have split their two previous meetings, with the Hornets’ win coming at Utah on Nov. 16, 2012. They went on a 29-13 run over the final 12 minutes to beat the Utes 74-71. They’ve also beaten Pac-12 opponents Arizona State (2015) and Oregon State (2009).
–Field Level Media