LOS ANGELES — Craig Smith knew there would be nights like this when he took the University of Utah basketball head coaching job almost nine months ago and began the rebuild of a once-proud program.
He probably didn’t think the first one would come this early.
Shorthanded Utah lost 93-73 to No. 18 USC on Wednesday night in the Pac-12 opener for both teams at the half-empty Galen Center (announced attendance was 3,754 for the late-night encounter that didn’t come close to offering “Pac-12 after dark” excitement), but that’s not nearly the story of night for the Runnin’ Utes, who fell to 5-2 overall.
December picked up where November left off in the injury department, as star Utah center Branden Carlson sustained a right ankle injury of some sort and played only seven minutes, leaving the game with two points and a rebound and the Utes trailing by just three points, 17-14.
“It is a lower leg injury. I don’t have any specifics yet,” Smith said regarding Carlson’s status for Sunday’s home game against Cal.
“At halftime I was told he won’t be going back into the game, but I don’t have any specifics at this point. That seems to be a theme for us right now.”
With Carlson in the locker room — joining Bostyn Holt, Dusan Mahorcic, Marco Anthony and Gabe Madsen among the limping wounded, or ill, in Madsen’s case — USC rolled on, inconvenienced only by some hot shooting from Utah’s Both Gach in the second half.
Gach, the former Ute who transferred to Minnesota and then back, announced his return to Pac-12 play with a 28-point outing on 10 of 14 shooting.
He scored all but four of those points in the second half.
“He was great tonight on the offensive end,” Smith said. “I thought he was super aggressive. The last game out (the loss to No. 12 BYU, which was upset by Utah Valley Wednesday night), I didn’t think he was nearly aggressive enough.
“I loved how he was in attack mode and getting downhill, specifically in that second half. We know he can get it going and score in bunches and he certainly did that tonight,” Smith continued.
- Southern California forward Max Agbonkpolo, left, blocks a shot by Utah guard Rollie Worster, center, with Southern California guard Drew Peterson, right, defending during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Alex Gallardo, AP
- Southern California forward Joshua Morgan, left, and forward Isaiah Mobley, right, defend against a shot by Utah forward Riley Battin, center, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Alex Gallardo, AP
- Utah guard Both Gach, right, dunks against Southern California forward Chevez Goodwin during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Alex Gallardo, AP
- Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley, right, and center Lahat Thioune, center, vie for the ball against Utah center Branden Carlson, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Alex Gallardo, AP
- Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley, right, makes contact with Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic (20) as forward Max Agbonkpolo (23) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Alex Gallardo, AP
- Utah coach Craig Smith talks with guard Jaxon Brenchley during the first half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Southern California in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Alex Gallardo, AP
- Utah center Branden Carlson (35) is helped off the court during the first half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Southern California in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Alex Gallardo, AP
By then, however, it was too little, too late.
When Carlson left the game with 11 minutes, 3 seconds left in the first half, the Trojans pounced like hungry dogs; Utah held them off for a couple minutes, but then the tidal wave hit.
Smith likes to say that not all turnovers are created alike, and never has the first-year Utah coach been more right in that little hominy.
“Yeah, every one of them (was catastrophic),” he said. “We only had five of them (in the first half), according to the stats. It felt like more. They literally made us pay on every single one of those.”
Isaiah Mobley led the Trojans (7-0, 1-0) with 21 points, while Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis added 19 and four assists, a lot of those on the giving and receiving end of fast breaks after steals.
“I thought we just got really sped up there late in that first half and didn’t play off two (passes) and were rushing everything, instead of playing with poise,” Smith said.
“I thought we did a way better job of that in the second half, and it showed with just one turnover.”
Jaxon Brenchley, the third player off the bench in Smith’s extremely tightened rotation, got his pocket picked and Ellis streaked down the court for a breakaway dunk.
After another Utah turnover, Mobley made an easy layup inside.
Riley Battin stemmed the tide with a 3-pointer, but three empty possessions for the Utes led to more easy baskets for the home team.
Battin finished with 10, but on 4 of 12 shooting. Second-leading scorer David Jenkins Jr. heated up in the second half and finished with 21.
“I mean, we need to get (Jenkins) more shots earlier, but teams are taking him away, too,” Smith said. “So it is a little bit of a give and take on that thing.
“That is something we will look at. I know we talked about that after the last game.”
Jenkins did have some decent looks early, but they didn’t fall and he was 1 of 5 in the first half.
Ellis, the Memphis transfer, took over the last five minutes of the first half, when USC essentially won the game.
He added another fastbreak dunk to back-to-back 3-pointers as the few Utah fans in attendance glanced hopefully at the tunnel in anticipation of seeing Carlson emerge.
He had been helped off the court by starter Marco Anthony, dressed in street clothes. Gabe Madsen, out for a fifth game with a non-COVID illness, also made the trip but didn’t play either.
The Trojans finished the half on a 13-2 run, broken up only by Battin’s bucket just before the halftime buzzer sounded to end the Utes’ first-half misery.
USC scored on 14 of 16 possessions after Carlson left the game.
The halftime numbers were tough to view for those in red: USC shot 62%and scored nine points off five Utah turnovers.
The Utes shot 30% and were out-rebounded 22-17 in the first half, and then it got worse. USC finished with 51 boards, Utah just 32.
Even with Carlson out, and down to seven scholarship players, Utah played USC evenly in the second half, each squad scoring 45 points.
Utah trimmed the deficit to 14 on two Gach free throws and were crawling back into the game because USC was horrible from the free-throw line.
But the Utes missed a couple more open 3-pointers and that was that.
“I don’t remember a lot of really bad shots,” Smith said. “But we have got to be able to finish plays around the basket and understand what we are trying to do when we go in there.”
Lahat Thioune and Lazar Stefanovic were the first two subs off the bench, and Thioune came up with 11 rebounds, many of them in Carlson’s absence.
Smith said he will get an update on leading scorer Carlson and leading rebounder and best defender Anthony on Thursday after treatments.
Anthony was out of his walking boot, which should be a positive sign.
“Maybe it is worse than I thought,” Smith said. “I literally don’t know. But that is the beauty of basketball. All you need is five guys, and obviously you need a little depth.
“We are going to have to reinvent how we are playing a little bit, but our guys did a good job adapting on the fly tonight.”
Now the task is to eliminate those catastrophic turnovers. And get a few more guys healthy.