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Runnin’ Utes starting to hit their stride a third of the way through Craig Smith’s first season

Lahat Thioune scored a career-high 16 points and Utah bounced back from Wednesday’s blowout loss at TCU with a resounding 96-62 win over Manhattan Saturday

SHARE Runnin’ Utes starting to hit their stride a third of the way through Craig Smith’s first season
Utah center Lahat Thioune (0) cheers after scoring a dunk during an NCAA game against Manhattan.

Utah center Lahat Thioune (0) cheers after scoring a dunk during an NCAA game against Manhattan at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

One-third of the basketball games in the Runnin’ Utes’ 2021-22 basketball season are in the books, and we’re starting to get a pretty good idea of what coach Craig Smith has on his hands in his first year on the Hill.

When healthy, and when playing in the friendly confines of the Huntsman Center — even if a lot of Utes fans haven’t realized basketball season has started, judging by Saturday’s attendance — Utah can play with almost anybody in the country and obliterate lesser opponents playing far away from home.

“Proud of our guys. You could see it tonight. We had a very good look to us. Really shared the ball. That’s a big thing for this team.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

The Utes proved that in Game 10 in front of an announced crowd of 6,645, toying with the Manhattan Jaspers on the way to a 96-62 victory with two more nonconference games remaining — at Missouri next Saturday and at home vs. Fresno State three days after that — before Pac-12 play resumes in late December.

Utah improved to 7-3, while Manhattan fell to 6-3.

“Proud of our guys,” Smith said. “You could see it tonight. We had a very good look to us. Really shared the ball. That’s a big thing for this team.”

All things considered, a 7-3 start should be considered acceptable for the Utes, seeing as how banged up they’ve been. The schedule has been just about right.

Losses to ranked BYU and USC and a so-called neutral-court setback to TCU in Fort Worth tested the Utes and showed where they need to improve. Those opponents, the Sunshine Slam wins and a few other games here and there have gradually gotten the Utes better for times when they will face better competition in January, February and March.

“In our guys’ defense, in a way we had to start all over (due to injuries),” Smith said. “Because I thought we did a lot of that stuff well early in the year when we were 5-0. And it wasn’t just because we were 5-0. I thought we had continuity and a rhythm.”

Utah rediscovered that rhythm against Manhattan, which on the surface didn’t seem to do a lot to improve the Utes, but Smith said he felt like playing a team that presses a lot and uses a lot of junk defenses actually helped a lot.

“This was a hard team to play with a lot of structure against, because every time they score they are pressing,” he said.

Every healthy player scored for the Utes — a late bucket by walk-on Harrison Creer drew one of the biggest roars of the day — and backup center Lahat Thioune reached a career high with 16 points, thanks in part to 8 of 8 shooting from the free-throw line.

Riley Battin added 14 points and seven rebounds, Branden Carlson chipped in 13 and four and Both Gach had 12 and six. 

A couple of guys who have been injured or ill, Marco Anthony and Gabe Madsen, added eight apiece. Nobody played more than 27 minutes in the laugher that was supposed to be a lot closer.

“It’s nice to have a close-to-healthy team,” said Battin, who was held scoreless in the 76-62 loss to TCU and had “been in a little funk,” according to Smith.

As for that loss to the Horned Frogs, it made for an interesting two days leading up to Saturday’s walloping, as Utah looked like a totally different team in the Huntsman Center in regards to playing together, sharing the ball and helping each other out on defense.

“It was a humbling film session on Thursday,” Smith said. “… To our guys’ credit, we handled it well. But we don’t want to get to the point where you always got to have that film session to handle it well, right?”

Say this about Smith: He identifies problem areas quickly and gets results.

Case in point: The Utes looked disconnected in the loss to TCU, and teamwork was lacking. Too much dribbling. Too much one-on-one play.

Saturday, the Utes assisted on nine of their first 11 field goals, finished the first half with 13 assists on 17 made buckets, and played arguably their best half of basketball in the first half in taking a 47-30 lead.

The Utes’ shooting percentage (55%) was the best in a first half this season, and it was the most in any half since they scored 51 on Washington last March in the Pac-12 tournament. They finished with 26 assists on 35 field goals.

“I don’t think it was an accident that we scored 96 points,” he said. “We were really on attack. A lot of good production. Everybody scored.”

Smith hinted Friday that he might make some lineup changes to reward players who were giving the best effort and producing the best results, and he delivered on that promise Saturday.

UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr., who started the season as Utah’s leading scorer but has been struggling mightily lately, was benched for the first time. Jenkins didn’t enter the game until 12:56 remained in the first half and the Utes up 16-8.

He was the ninth Ute to play, entering the game after Thioune, Jaxon Brenchley and Lazar Stefanovic.

“Nothing specific,” Smith said, when asked why he benched Jenkins. “I felt like with our team it might be a better look, just the change (helping). Quite frankly, maybe it will help him, just seeing things from maybe a different lens, so to speak.”

As for being 7-3 a third of the way through the season, Smith said “we’ve dealt with a lot of stuff” and that’s not too disappointing, all things considered.

“Seven and three is a good record, but I also wish we were 9-1,” he said. “It is an enjoyable group to be around.”

The 7-foot Carlson, who has emerged as the Utes’ most reliable player, took a shot to the face early in the second half and only played 24 minutes, but was still effective. He added two blocks and also dished out four assists.

Carlson said the sky is the limit for this team when Dusan Mahorcic gets back and guys like Anthony and Madsen get back to full strength.

“Overall, I would say we’ve had a pretty successful start to the season,” he said.