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A few positives emerged from injury-riddled Runnin’ Utes’ blowout loss to USC

New coach Craig Smith’s team went small after center Branden Carlson suffered an ankle injury and tied the Trojans 45-45 in the second half; Minnesota transfer Both Gach tied a career-high with 28 points.

Utah center Branden Carlson grimaces after an injury during game against Southern California in Los Angeles, Dec. 1, 2021.
Utah center Branden Carlson grimaces after an injury during game against Southern California in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Carlson’s status for the Utes’ Pac-12 home opener against Cal on Sunday is unknown.
Alex Gallardo, Associated Press

Although Wednesday night’s 93-73 loss to No. 18-ranked USC was overshadowed by the ankle injury suffered by big man and leading scorer Branden Carlson and looks like a blowout on paper, there were a couple of bright spots Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith hopes to build on in the future.

In particular, the Utes (5-2, 0-1) really got their offense going in the second half, as they went small (out of necessity) and put up 45 points in the final 20 minutes against one of the best defenses in the Pac-12, if not the country.

Of course, USC (7-0, 1-0) put up 45 as well, and it would have been more if the Trojans had made more than 56% of their free throws. They were 14 of 25 from the charity stripe, and it got so bad in the second half that some fans audibly grumbled despite their double-digit lead throughout the half.

“I love the way we played the second half,” Smith said. “Like, 45-45 (score). I just loved how we competed, and gave ourselves a few chances to cut that thing under 10. But we just came up short.”

Winning at Galen Center in front of 3,754 fans in the Pac-12 opener was a big ask for the Utes even before the 7-foot Carlson went down with just over 11 minutes remaining in the first half. Without him, it was almost impossible because the Utes were also without leading rebounder Marco Anthony and backup center Dusan Mahorcic, making them incredibly vulnerable inside.

Carlson entered the game leading the Utes in scoring with a 15.7 average, and Anthony is their top rebounder at 8.8 caroms per game. Carlson also leads the Utes with 13 blocked shots, and his ability to swat away or alter shots was sorely missed the last 11 minutes of the first half and well into the second half.

“Not only a rim protector goes out, but obviously (USC) is one of the biggest teams in the country, and the way they play, size makes a big difference,” Smith said. “And they are a very good rebounding team. They are elite in scoring around the basket. Their second- and third-leading scorers are fours and fives, and so it makes a huge difference.”

Carlson watched the second half on the bench, his right ankle in a walking boot. Obviously, his availability doesn’t look good for Sunday’s 3 p.m. contest against Cal at the Huntsman Center.

“Seems to be a theme for us right now,” Smith quipped.

Mahorcic is likely out until at least January, but Anthony’s return looks imminent. Anthony was out of his boot Wednesday night, and in an unusual twist it was the Virginia and Utah State transfer who helped Carlson get off the court and into the locker room after he landed awkwardly on his ankle while battling for a rebound.

“Like we told the guys: We can’t worry about what we can’t control,” Smith said of the mounting injuries. “And we don’t know who is going to be coming back. … We are going to have to find a way to defend and rebound with this group we have right now.”

Lahat Thioune had a career-high 11 rebounds and probably gets the start at the five spot Sunday if Carlson can’t go.

“I thought Lahat had a pretty good game,” Smith said.

The Utes are also playing without sharpshooter Gabe Madsen and junior college transfer Bostyn Holt, out for the season after tearing an ACL.

“Yeah, it is frustrating,” said point guard Rollie Worster. “You don’t wish (injuries) on anyone, but especially our own, and a player of (Carlson’s) caliber on our team. It is a big loss, but we have got enough players, enough guys on our team to pick up the slack, and we just gotta move forward and hope for the best with that.”

Utah guard Both Gach, right, dunks against Southern California during game in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Gach tied a career-high with 28 points.
Alex Gallardo, Associated Press

Both Gach’s play in the second half was another bright spot for the Utes. Told to play more aggressively at halftime after he had just four points on 2 of 5 shooting in the first half, Gach delivered, and then some.

He finished with 28 points, four rebounds and two assists. Is Gach officially back?

“Oh man, I guess you could say that,” he said. “I have been in the league, I had games like that a few times (in 2019). So I guess you could say that.”

Although he moved into the starting lineup after Anthony suffered his ankle injury in the Tulsa game at the Sunshine Slam, Gach said he’s ready to take on an even bigger role if that’s what it takes.

“Right now we just got that next-man-up mentality,” he said. “When Branden is playing for us, he does a lot of great things for us, especially scoring the ball down there in the post, stuff like that. For me, I just wanted to step up for my team and make something happen.”

Cal (3-4) opens Pac-12 play Thursday night, hosting Oregon State in Berkeley. The Bears played No. 21 Seton Hall tough before falling 62-59 on Nov. 24, then rebounded with a 65-57 win over Fresno State.

Meanwhile, the Utes, down to seven healthy scholarship players, will continue to make adjustments — both in games and practices.

“Every game we hold out hope that something good can happen, but like they say in (the movie) “Shawshank Redemption,” hope is a dangerous thing,” Smith said. “So we gotta be able to deal with who we have. … The other guys gotta be able to pick it up. There are no excuses. You gotta find a way.”

Like they did in the second half

.