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Runnin’ Utes blow halftime lead, lose chance to get a rare win against struggling Oregon Ducks

Oregon guards Will Richardson and Jacob Young combine for 48 points and the Ducks roll past the Utes 79-66 on New Year’s Day

Oregon center Franck Kepnang (22) and Utah center Lahat Thioune (0) fight for a loose ball in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Thomas Boyd)
AP

EUGENE, Ore. — A couple of hours after the University of Utah football team’s heartbreaking loss in the Rose Bowl, 7-foot Utes center Branden Carlson launched a Hail Mary from just inside the halfcourt line at Knight Arena, and the basketball banked in, beating the halftime buzzer and giving the Runnin’ Utes a five-point lead over the Oregon Ducks.

Maybe the basketball team’s fortunes were going to be a bit better than their counterparts were the first night of the new year.

But that momentum coach Craig Smith’s team took into the locker room didn’t last into the second half, and Oregon rallied behind the superb play of guards Will Richardson and Jacob Young to take a 79-66 win in front of an announced crowd of 5,655.

“Definitely a tale of two halves,” Smith said.

Indeed it was.

Poor play in the second half, particularly on defense, cost the Utes (8-6, 1-3) a golden opportunity to defeat a middling Oregon team (8-6, 1-2) that hasn’t been up to Oregon standards this season. Perhaps Saturday night’s win will get coach Dana Altman’s team turned around.

The Ducks’ guard play is certainly looking bright.

Richardson (26 points), Young (22) and De’Vion Harmon (11) combined for all but 20 of Oregon’s points and simply exploded in the second half to bury the Utes.

Oregon shot 55%, including 10 of 19 from 3-point range, to quickly erase Utah’s 35-29 halftime lead.

Trailing 40-31 after the Utes’ made a 3-pointer, the Ducks went on a 13-0 run to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Utah got within two or three points a couple times after that, but each time Utah threatened to retake the lead, one of those guards had an answer.

“It just got away on the defensive end,” Ute wing Marco Anthony said. “We let guys get loose, especially in the second half, and turnovers didn’t help, either. It is just the same two things (turnovers and defense) we have been struggling with.”

The Utes finished with 15 turnovers, five fewer than in the 88-76 loss up the road at Oregon State on Thursday, but there were some costly ones that let Young and Richardson, especially, get going.

“I thought we played with a great competitive spirit tonight, but you gotta give Oregon a lot of credit. They responded in a great way,” Smith said. “They were really good in that second half. They hit some tough shots. … Will Richardson was on fire. We had no answer for him.”

As a six-point underdog, Utah knew it would have to play an outstanding game to pull off the upset, and for the first 20 minutes the Utes did that. They turned it over just six times in the first half, shot 39% from the field and made five 3-pointers.

They won the first-half rebounding battle 22-14 and picked up nine second-chance points.

Carlson’s shot felt like an omen of even better things to come in the second half.

“Just like we drew it up,” Smith said.

Carlson’s take: “That’s the first one I have ever hit like that before, but it was an unselfish play by Stef (Lazar Stefanovic) to pass it to me. Glad it went in, though.”

The euphoria wouldn’t last.

During Oregon’s 13-0 run, Richardson hit two 3-pointers and Young added a third.

“It got away from us on the defensive end,” Carlson said. “We did not play as good of team defense as we needed to, or good one-on-one defense, either.

“We let too many players just make plays and (isolate) us out. That’s something we need to fix. We need to guard the ball as a team and as well as one-on-one.”

Still, Utah was right there, trailing just 54-51, after Carlson slammed home a dunk with 10:14 remaining. Richardson hit a 3-pointer with 7:31 left to give the Ducks a 61-55 lead, and then came a key moment.

Utah’s second-leading scorer, David Jenkins Jr., was whistled for his fifth foul with 7:07 remaining while attempting a 3-pointer. The official said he kicked his legs out while taking the shot.

That was Utah’s 13th turnover.

It was Jenkins’ only shot attempt of the game, and he was held scoreless for the first time this season.

“Yeah, he just couldn’t get into a rhythm, right?” Smith said. “David and Stef were the first guys to go in (off the bench). He got a couple quick (fouls), some just kinda out of nowhere types of fouls that you don’t expect.”

Anthony and Stefanovic partially made up for the scoring slack, combining for 24 points, while Carlson led the Utes with 15 points and six rebounds.

Point guard Rollie Worster struggled against Oregon’s quickness and had five turnovers.

“They started heating us up, and then the crowd gets into it and they start making some runs,” Smith said. “We probably should have called timeout earlier than we did on that first run (13-0 run). But at the end of the day, 15 turnovers is too many.”

Indeed, 35 turnovers on the difficult Oregon road swing isn’t going to produce many wins. Whether it be defense, or rebounding, or turnovers, the Utes just can’t seem to put a complete game together.

“If we want to win in this league, and go beyond it, we got to get it together, and get it together rather quickly,” Anthony said.

They also need to shoot the ball better, especially when they are wide open.

The Utes missed three open 3-pointers to start the game before Both Gach (six points) hit one to get them going. Stefanovic drilled a triple out of a timeout to give the Utes an 8-4 lead, and when Lahat Thioune made a rebound basket a minute later, it looked like the Utes were going to be OK.

Gach also hit a triple early in the second half, which gave the Utes a 40-31 lead.

That just gave the Ducks a wakeup call, apparently, because they reeled off that big run to take the lead for good.

“We had our chances. It just wasn’t good enough,” Smith said. “When you go on the road, you gotta overcome a lot of different things — the crowd and outside influences and that kind of stuff. Like I told the guys after — I was really proud of our effort and how we competed. It just wasn’t good enough at the end of the day.”