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Utah basketball: Runnin’ Utes’ teamwork found wanting in road loss to Big 12’s TCU

New coach Craig Smith’s club sputters on offense, plays a little too selfishly, and falls 76-62 to the Horned Frogs at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas

TCU guard Mike Miles (1) drives to the basket as Utah’s Lazar Stefanovic (20), Rollie Worster (25) and Branden Carlson, right, defend in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Fort Worth, Texas, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.
Tony Gutierrez, AP

One quick glance at the box score pretty much told the tale for the Runnin’ Utes on Wednesday night in their 76-62 loss to the Big 12’s TCU in front of 2,231 fans at Dickies Arena.

The Utes shot a frosty 34% from the field, including an even-chillier 3 of 20 from 3-point range (15%) and were outscored 44-28 in the paint. A few other stats didn’t go their way — getting out-rebounded 43-33 and giving up 10 second-chance points to the third-best offensive rebounding team in the country didn’t help.

But it was the less-tangible stuff that got in the way as much as anything else, intangibles like not playing together, not being cohesive and dialed in as a unit, and not hustling quite hard enough for loose balls and rebounds that doomed the Utes.

TCU, playing at a so-called neutral site three miles away from its Fort Worth, Texas, campus, improved to 7-1 and won its fourth-straight game. The Frogs showed they have some athletes to make some noise in one of the country’s best basketball conference this winter.

It was always going to be a big ask for Utah to pull this one out.

The Utes fell to 6-3 and will turn their attention to Saturday’s home contest against Manhattan knowing they have plenty to work on and figure out.

“When you shoot 33%, it is going to be hard for you to win against anybody,” Smith said.

The good news for the Utes was that guard Marco Anthony (ankle) returned to the rotation, coming off the bench, and scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in 25 minutes.

Both Gach and Branden Carlson scored 16 points apiece, but David Jenkins Jr. had another off shooting night (3 of 11 for seven points) and the Utes wore down in the second half as they’ve done in their other two losses — against BYU and USC.

In the second half, “our defense wasn’t nearly as good,” Smith said. “I thought they wore us down.”

Mike Miles led the Frogs with 28 points and eight rebounds. The Utes didn’t have an answer for the preseason all-Big 12 selection, especially with best-defender Anthony not at full strength yet.

“If he was 100% he probably would have guarded Miles a lot more,” Smith said. “We are just going to see where he goes from here, but I thought he did a good job tonight” for a guy who hasn’t played since November 21.

For about 14 minutes the Runnin’ Utes were hanging with the Frogs, matching them bucket-for-bucket after Utah had an early six-point lead.

But with a little over six minutes remaining in the first half, TCU’s Francisco Farabello came up with a steal and was driving for a layup when he was unintentionally struck in the face by Jenkins.

After a review, officials assessed Jenkins with a flagrant 1 foul, and Farabello made both free throws to give TCU a 24-22 lead. That sparked the Frogs on an 11-0 run and Utah got no closer than six the rest of the way.

Smith said the big run coming after the flagrant “was just circumstantial” and the Utes didn’t have a letdown or “hang our heads or sulk,” but the play seemed to give the Frogs an extra jolt of energy.

Postgame, Smith used a question about the sequence to mention how the Utes did a poor job of coming up with loose balls and making hustle plays.

“This might sound crazy to some people, but coming up with the ball is a talent,” he said. “Why are some guys always coming up with the ball? … We got to be able to make those 50-50 plays, or come down with those tough rebounds, or in the scrums get those balls against good teams. It has been a bugaboo at times for us.”

Utah got into the bonus at the 14:03 mark of the second half, and would get 19 free throws in the second half as a result. They ended up 21 of 25 from the line, compared to TCU’s 11 of 14.

But every time Utah threatened to make up some ground in the second half, like when Rollie Worster and Gach made their first two 3-pointers of the contest, TCU had an answer — usually in the form of Miles or a rebound basket.

“I just thought we lost some of our discipline to make some stops,” Smith said.

There were some bright spots, such as the way Utah took care of the ball and how backup center Lahat Thioune continues to improve. He had five rebounds and was 2-for-2 from the field in 11 minutes.

Utah committed only eight turnovers, but when those happened, they were costly. TCU had 18 fast-break points.

“We hadn’t really had an issue with that until this game,” Smith said.

One issue that continues to haunt the Utes is their propensity to miss easy, close-in shots — three or four a game. Their shot selection was subpar — especially the last 10 minutes of the first half when TCU broke away — and at times they played selfishly.

“I thought we forced some shots we didn’t need to take, quite frankly.” Smith said. “When you start taking bad shots (other guys) don’t expect those shots to go up, so you are not as quick getting back. That stood out, and then again the points in the paint. In our three losses, we have been pulverized in the paint for a multitude of reasons.”

That might not change until Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic, 6-foot-10 and well-built, returns from a knee injury, hopefully in January.

Gach has been a godsend, but Smith correctly pointed out that there are few other Utes who are “break-you-down-guys” at the end of the shot clock.

“We will learn from this,” he said. “It was a tough one, certainly. But we gotta grow from this and get better because we have no time to feel sorry for ourselves with a good Manhattan team coming in on Saturday.”