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‘Who are we?’: Inconsistent Runnin’ Utes seeking an identity after disappointing loss to Oregon State

Utah (8-5, 1-2) will attempt to salvage a split on its trip to Oregon on Saturday night against the disappointing Ducks at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene

Oregon State’s Warith Alatishe (10) shoots over Utah’s Branden Carlson (35) in OSU’s 88-76 win over the Runnin’ Utes on Dec. 30, 2021. Utah meets Oregon on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, hoping to get a split out of its Oregon road trip. Amanda Loman, Associated Press

EUGENE, Ore. — University of Utah basketball coach Craig Smith is starting to feel like the Dutch boy in the novel “The Silver Skates” who saves his country by putting his finger in a leaking dike.

Problem is, just when one leak is seemingly fixed, another pops up.

That was the case Thursday night in the 88-76 loss to Oregon State at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, Oregon, as Utah (8-5, 1-2) shot and rebounded the basketball well enough to win but faltered taking care of it and stopping the Beavers (3-10, 1-2) from shooting it even better.

The Utes committed 20 turnovers and watched almost helplessly as the taller, more athletic Beavers shot 56% from the field.

Despite winning the rebounding battle 37-32 and making 12 3-pointers, Utah lost to a team missing four key contributors.

“It is never enjoyable losing,” Smith said. “We had a golden opportunity tonight to make something happen and we didn’t come through.”

The Utes, who were four-point favorites, probably will not be favored to win a Pac-12 road game again until they play at Washington (5-5, 0-0) on Jan. 29 or at Cal (8-5) on Feb. 19.

Their road swing continues Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at Oregon (7-6, 0-2) , which hasn’t played since downing Pepperdine 68-59 on Dec. 21.

Tipoff at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene is at 8:30 p.m. MST.

Smith said late Thursday night that the task on Friday, New Year’s Eve, will be figuring out a way to beat the Ducks. Simple as that. And it starts with identifying ways Utah can improve its consistency in all facets of the game.

“It is big boy basketball, and we are in the Pac-12, and there is always a way to win, and always a way to lose,” Smith said. “I think the biggest thing is, ‘Who are we?’ We gotta find an identity, establish an identity. I don’t know exactly what that is right now, but we gotta carve it out and figure it out.”

One of the Utes who played well enough to deliver a victory, at least on the offensive end, was UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr., who scored a team-high 22 points in a team-high 30 minutes.

Defensively, Jenkins and Rollie Worster had a hard time slowing OSU star Jarod Lucas, who had a game-high 25 points.

“It felt like three different games in one,” Smith said. “They came out hot. Jarod Lucas got going early, and when he sees the ball go in the hole early, he’s tough to stop.

“He is averaging 20 a game over the last four, and he had what he had tonight, so I thought that gave them some confidence.”

Jenkins said Utah’s identity has to come from its strengths — togetherness and passion for the game.

“I was telling my guys, any team we play in the Pac- 12, we are obviously not going to be the most athletic team,” Jenkins said. “We are not the tallest team, either. What we have to do is make sure we out-will each and every team by playing together and building that chemistry and camaraderie on both ends of the court. I think is going to be very essential for us to do that.”

Jenkins said the Utes got caught up too much in Oregon State’s poor record and forgot how the Beavers still have a ton of talent, most notably Lucas and senior Warith Alatishe. He didn’t flat-out say the Utes overlooked OSU, but hinted at it.

“I think we did kind of like play down to our competition a little bit,” Jenkins said. “We didn’t expect a whole bunch from them because of their record, and I think that is kind of what hurt us.”

That shouldn’t happen Saturday, as Oregon has seemingly recovered from an early season swoon that included an 81-49 loss to BYU up the highway in Portland.

The Ducks lost close Pac-12 games to Arizona State (69-67 in overtime) and Stanford (72-69) in early December but have gone 2-1 since then, the only loss in that stretch a 78-70 setback to No. 1 Baylor in Eugene a week before Christmas.

“I think we are going to be in a lot of these types of games,” Smith said. “We are going to learn from them. We gotta learn how to finish those types of games.”

Will Richardson leads Oregon in scoring with a 12.7 average, while Quincy Guerrier leads the squad in rebounding with 5.4 caroms per contest.

Richardson and Guerrier are the only Ducks who have started all 13 games. De’Vion Harmon has started in 12 games, and is the second-leading scorer with a 10.1 average.

“It is very, very difficult to win college basketball games,” Smith said. “The margin for error is very fine, and our margin for error is very fine.”

Starting center Branden Carlson played just 24 minutes against the Beavers, partly because he was in foul trouble (and eventually fouled out) and partly because Smith said “we were just trying to be smart with him” because Carlson hasn’t played or practiced much the past month since sustaining an ankle injury in the 93-73 loss to USC on Dec. 1 and entering health and safety protocol a few days before Utah lost 83-75 at Missouri on Dec. 18.

“His conditioning (isn’t quite there),” Smith said. “He has lost a little weight. You can probably see that.

“So we are just trying to get him back into a rhythm, and get him back with his conditioning. It is hard when you sit around for basically 10 days and can’t do anything.”

Utes, Ducks on the air

Utah (8-5, 1-2) vs. Oregon (7-6, 0-2)

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST

At Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Oregon

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700 AM