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How Runnin’ Utes used ‘whatever works’ to grind out a Pac-12 win over Cal Bears

Star center Branden Carlson scored 12 points and grabbed four rebounds while playing on a gimpy right ankle to lead Utes past Cal in a Sunday matinee at the Huntsman Center

From left, Utah center Lahat Thioune, guard Gabe Madsen, California forward Andre Kelly and guard Jalen Celestine reach for a loose ball.
From left, Utah center Lahat Thioune, guard Gabe Madsen, California forward Andre Kelly and guard Jalen Celestine reach for a loose ball during an NCAA game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

New Utah basketball coach Craig Smith wants to eventually put the running back into the Runnin’ Utes, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

Particularly when you are as banged up as the Utes are.

In that case, whatever works is the solution to getting Pac-12 wins, and on a sleepy Sunday afternoon at the Huntsman Center, a more deliberate, slow-down style is what worked.

Both Gach enjoyed his second-straight outstanding outing and Branden Carlson gutted out 21 minutes when nobody thought he would play, including his coach, and the Utes held off improved Cal 66-58 to even their league record at 1-1 in front of an announced crowd of 6,548.

“This team, we will do what we need to do,” Smith said. “Quite frankly, I don’t like playing like that (with so much structure on offense). I think this team has enough talent and decision-making ability and good players (to play faster), but with the injuries we just gotta be able to figure it out.”

The Utes (6-2, 1-1) won their sixth game by roaring out of the halftime locker room with one of their best 10-minute stretches of the season. Trailing 35-29 after a lousy-shooting first half by both teams, the Utes opened the second half on a 10-0 run to grab a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Cal (4-5, 1-1) went seven straight possessions without scoring, and the damage was done.

“We weren’t happy with how we ended the first half,” Smith said. “It wasn’t a fire and brimstone speech or anything like that at halftime. But it was a matter-of-fact speech and we made a few adjustments with our screen and roll defense, which really helped us.”

Rollie Worster got the Utes going with a driving layup, Carlson stepped outside and hit a 3-pointer — that after missing a bunny inside — and then Gach scored seven straight points to give the Utes a 41-37 lead.

Smith said in the first half, when Utah missed eight of its first nine shots and shot 33% in the first 20 minutes, coaches called 12 sets and the Utes had “good looks” on all 12 of them, and scored on 8 of 12.

“And then when we did not call sets, we were not very good,” he said. “So we tried to be a little bit more structured as a whole on the offensive end, and I think it did help us in the second half.”

Utah also ramped up its defense, which some considerable help from the Bears, who had just six points in the game’s first 10 minutes. Cal eventually heated up to take the six-point lead at the break, but that was as good as it got for the visitors who had upset Oregon State Thursday night in their Pac-12 opener.

Leading scorer Andre Kelly (16 ppg) was held to four points on 2 of 6 shooting, and his frustration boiled over toward the end of the game when he threw Carlson to the ground under Utah’s basket.

“At end of the day, I thought our guys really played him well,” said Smith, crediting Carlson and backup center Lahat Thioune. “We had to make it difficult for him because he has unbelievable touch, amazing touch from 17 (feet) on in.”

Jordan Shepherd led Cal with 14 points, while Makale Foreman chipped in 13 and Grant Anticevich 12.

But the Bears shot just 29% in the second half, and committed 10 turnovers that proved costly in such a slow-down game.

Gach finished with 19 on 7 of 10 shooting, and Carlson added 12 and, just as importantly, drew six fouls.

As for playing on a gimpy ankle he sprained in the 93-73 loss to USC on Wednesday night, Carlson said he didn’t practice on it Thursday, Friday or Saturday but showed up early Sunday and, after working with athletic trainer Trevor Jameson, decided to give it a go.

“It is all right,” he said after the game. “It is not 100 percent, but it is getting there. … We just decided that we would go today. It was all right during the game. Had a few tweaks here and there, but overall it was pretty good.”

Later, Carlson said he was about 80% and fully plans to play Wednesday when the Utes travel to Fort Worth, Texas, to take on TCU at a quasi-neutral site.

Smith said it was “remarkable” that Carlson was even able to play, let alone 21 minutes.

“I mean, if you all saw that (USC) game, his ankle was not pretty and he didn’t do anything for the last three days and at the last second, decided to play,” Smith said. “So prop your hat to him. He certainly wasn’t 100% — you could see that out there.”

Smith said that nowadays some guys won’t play if they aren’t 100% because they don’t want to put bad film on tape for scouts, or something similar.

“Give that kid a lot of credit, man,” Smith said. “He gutted it out when he certainly wasn’t feeling optimal, to say the least. He still ends up with 12 (points), but you could see he was a little off, a little gimpy, so to speak. But he gave us great minutes.”

So did freshman Lazar Stefanovic, who, like Thioune, had his best game as a Ute.

Stefanovic was 1 of 5 in the first half, and 0 of 2 from 3-point range, but that didn’t dampen his confidence.

It the second half, he made three 3-pointers to help the Utes pull away. He finished with 11 points, three assists and six rebounds.

“When Lazar was on the floor, good things happened for our team in every way, shape and form,” Smith said. “It gives you a glimpse — he’s not afraid. Bricked up a couple shots that didn’t look pretty and he stepped up to the plate and made three 3s in a row in roughly the last 12 minutes of the game.”

Freshman Gabe Madsen played for the first time since the opener against Abilene Christian and logged 14 minutes, but didn’t score.

Utah State transfer Marco Anthony didn’t play for the first time since suffering an ankle injury against Tulsa, watching in street clothes from the bench.

“We know there is no structural damage — no broken bones,” in his ankle, Smith said. “But if you see that replay (of the injury), you will know it wasn’t pretty.”

Nor was Sunday’s victory over the Cal Bears, but the depleted Utes aren’t about to give it back.