It’s getting easier to see why Coach Craig Smith loaded his new University of Utah men’s basketball roster.
He has “his” guys. Sure, Smith has some talented players such as Branden Carlson, Riley Battin and Jaxon Brenchley — plus Both Gach, who transferred and then came back — that were holdovers from the Larry Krystkowiak era, which lasted 10 years.
But as soon as Smith took over the Utes’ post last March, he invited Rollie Worster, Dusan Mahorcic, Marco Anthony, David Jenkins, Bostyn Holt and others to be part of the roster, plus kept the commitment of Lazar Stefanovic.
Utah won its first five games, and Carlson and Battin earned much of the attention. Saturday night, it was the efforts of Worster and Stefanovic that kept the Utes in a close battle with No. 18 Brigham Young.
Finally, the Cougars took advantage of a 45-28 rebounding advantage and key free throws from guard Alex Barcello in the final minute to claim a 75-64 win.
“It felt like a March (Madness) game, and we saw what we have to do to win those physical games,” Smith said. “We played disjointed early, but we also had them disjointed.”
The game was much closer than the final score most of the night. The Utes didn’t commit a turnover until there was 10:14 left in the first half, and even while they were losing the rebounding battle, they led for much of the first half.
BYU had a 10-1 run midway through the second half to gain some momentum, but the Utes again rallied to within 68-62 until Barcello, Gavin Baxter and Caleb Lohner wore them down in this annual highly anticipated rivalry between the biggest schools in Utah.
Over 11,400 fans attended — easily the biggest crowd of Utah’s four home contests this season — and were a huge boost to the players who couldn’t show their talents in the near-empty facilities last year, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Carlson, Stefanovic and Smith all were thrilled to see the arena mostly filled — even to the highest seats — and for the noise, especially from the student section (the MUSS), which was filled well before the 7:30 p.m. tipoff.
“Playing in front of all those fans was really amazing,” said Stefanovic, a 6-foot-7 freshman from Serbia who played nearly 26 minutes and scored a season-high 12 points.
“I was trying to be myself and just see what my role was.”
Now 5-1, Smith admitted this was easily Utah’s most-difficult preseason test. However, the team will be tested even further with their next game, Dec. 1 at No. 24 USC and then at home Dec. 5 against Cal.
Smith said he was proud of Utah’s early effort, which started with a 7-0 run that led to a 29-27 halftime lead.
However, Mahorcic went down with an injury, and that forced Smith to reshuffle his lineup.
It starts, of course, with the 7-foot Carlson, who had 17 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
The feistiness of Stefanovic and Worster (13 points and six rebounds) frustrated BYU for much of the game, but it wasn’t enough, and the team will need to gain experience quickly and build team chemistry in order to have a chance to challenge the Pac-12’s leaders.
The seriousness of Mahorcic’s injury was still unknown at press time, and the loss of Holt, Anthony and Gabe Madsen will have Smith and his staff trying to put together a team puzzle as quickly as possible while trying to take advantage of the momentum the Utes have built already.
“You can’t have that ‘loser’s limp,’” Smith said. “We have to adjust.”