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Runnin’ Utes stay perfect, win Florida tournament title

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) dribbles around Bethune-Cookman Wildcats guard Damani McEntire (5) during a men’s basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Utah won 86-55.
FILE Photo — Utah center Branden Carlson dribbles around Bethune-Cookman Wildcats guard Damani McEntire during game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Utah won 86-55. The Utes defeated Tulsa 72-58 Sunday to win the Sunshine Slam tournament in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The University of Utah men’s basketball team may not be the biggest sports story on campus this week, but coach Craig Smith’s team sure enjoyed Sunday evening’s team-bonding win over Tulsa that netted the Utes the Sunshine Slam championship trophy.

Branden Carlson scored 15 points and pulled down 13 rebounds to lead Utah to a 72-58 win, then took home the tourney MVP award at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The 7-foot Carlson enjoyed a significant height advantage over his Golden Hurricane opponents and played a key role as the Utes continued their perfect start (5-0) in coach Craig Smith’s first season.

“We beat a good team. This was a difficult matchup,” said Smith, whose squad endured a day-long flight delay Thursday, arrived on the Florida coast Friday and then downed Boston College on Saturday than 24 hours later to advance to the final.

“We had time to get some rest (Sunday), so we had more juice in our legs today,” Smith added. “We moved the ball well and this is what the guys are learning to do.

“We are winning games on the floor and developing relationships off the floor.”

They also soaked up the sunshine, acquired the tourney trophy and took home T-shirts. Carlson may get most of the credit, but he had a lot of help from David Jenkins on Sunday (13 points), Rollie Worster (12), Lazar Stefanovic (12) and Both Gach (11).

The Utes led most of the game, but gained some significant separation thanks to an 11-0 run late in the first half that resulted in a 33-24 advantage at intermission.

After the Utes’ 3-point shooting woes (7 for 27 on the day) helped Tulsa get to within five points, Gach, Worster and Jenkins began to take the ball to the hoop and the Utes’ defense kept Tulsa frustrated.

In the second half, Jenkins nailed Utah’s final trey during a four-minute stretch late to help Utah build its lead to as many as 17 points.

Like the night before, a timely TV timeout ended an opponent’s scoring run and the Utes returned to the court and regained control.

Smith said he couldn’t recall any special words that might have motivated the team.

“Great teams find different ways to win,” he said. “We may not always be the most-athletic team, but we can be the most physical and make teams play our style of play.

“One thing that has been consistent in all of our games is that we have defended well.”

Added Carlson: “It’s about effort. Our coaches are always telling us about working hard and being the tougher team.”

Tulsa, which defeated Rhode Island 77-71 late Saturday night, got 18 points from Sam Griffin. The Golden Hurricane shot 40 percent but only 25 percent (4-16) from 3-point land and were badly outrebounded 45-29.

The Utes’ Marco Anthony, who left the game with an injury, backed up Carlson with seven boards in just 18 minutes.

Riley Battin and Jaxon Brenchley added six each.

“I’m really happy about how our bench played,” Smith said. “Everyone impacts us in a different way.”

Bruce Smith is a contributor for the Deseret News.