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Utah basketball gets first high major win under Craig Smith

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Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) celebrates after the Utes beat the Sacramento State Hornets at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Four games into the basketball season, the new-look Utah Runnin’ Utes are starting to take on the personality of coach Craig Smith.

The Utes bounced back from a difficult cross-country trek, which included a nearly 10-hour wait at the Salt Lake City airport to catch their flight, and played consistently enough to bounce Boston College 68-61 in their first game at the Sunshine Slam tournament at the Ocean Center.

Playing less than 200 yards from the Atlantic Ocean, the Utes broke open a close game in the final minutes Saturday afternoon, thanks to a blocked shot and dunk by 7-foot Bingham High graduate Branden Carlson, a creative offensive play and basket from Rollie Worster and four straight free throws by Riley Battin.

With the win, the Utes improved to 4-0 and advanced to play the winner of the Rhode Island-Tulsa game, which occurred after the Utes’ contest.

Smith said he was anxious to learn Sunday’s opponent but was debating whether to stay at the arena or return to the hotel to watch the Utah-Oregon football game.

“A good win,” Smith said. “A lot of things didn’t go our way. We found a way to get a win.”

Added guard David Jenkins Jr., who tied Carlson in scoring with 13 points: “I was happy at how poised we were. This was our first adversity we’ve had and we handled it well.”

The adversity actually started Thursday morning, when the Utes were scheduled to depart Salt Lake.

Smith didn’t elaborate, but said the team spent much of the day at the airport, then had to return to their homes and try again the next day.

“There was no complaining from the team, even though it felt like an international flight,” Smith said.

The 2,300-mile flight also included a two-hour time change, and then Utah got to take on the Eagles, a well-known school with at least two prominent athletes, but likely facing a rebuilding year under first-year coach Earl Grant.

Jenkins and Carlson led Utah’s scoring effort, and Marco Anthony and Lazar Stefanovic added nine points each.

Both Gach and Battin added eight, and half of Battin’s scoring came in the final minute, when he nailed a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left that turned a 64-61 lead into a five-point margin.

A few seconds later, Battin stole the ball on Boston College’s last-gasp offensive effort, was fouled and made two more shots to make the score appear more comfortable.

Jenkins also made a pair of important charity shots. As a team, Utah made 12 of 13 (92.3%) from the line, a giant step forward from last year’s team, which finished 122nd in the country at 73.0%.

Smith just smiled at his team’s near-perfect effort from the line. Last year, his Utah State Aggies made 76.0% of their free throws, which was ranked 30th among Division I schools.

Smith admitted that he also liked the tournament atmosphere, which forces the Utes to play two games in roughly 24 hours in front of a sparse crowd.

It’s a much different environment than what they’ll face a next weekend at rival Brigham Young.

But that’s a week away, and there was a good football game to watch.