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Runnin’ Utes have work to do to become road warriors after getting swept on Oregon trip

Coach Craig Smith’s 8-6 squad, 1-3 in the Pac-12, returns to the Huntsman Center this week for home games against the Washington schools

Utah center Branden Carlson shoots over Oregon center Franck Kepnang.
Utah center Branden Carlson (35) shoots over Oregon center Franck Kepnang (22) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.
Thomas Boyd, Associated Press

Among the themes developing for the Runnin’ Utes this season, or issues they need to overcome if they hope to make it into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, is their inability to win on the road.

Simply put, coach Craig Smith’s squad doesn’t play nearly as well away from the Huntsman Center as it does inside it. That’s especially true when the Utes play in hostile territory, although none of their games to date have been played in what could really be called raucous atmospheres.

Take Saturday night’s 79-66 loss at Oregon, for example. The announced crowd of 5,655 at Matthew Knight Arena was fairly subdued, and didn’t really seem to rattle the Utes that much. Nor did the crowd of 3,245 up the road at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis do much to affect the outcome when the Utes lost 88-76 to Oregon State to start the road swing.

In both instances, the Ducks and Beavers played better than they’ve been playing away from their friendly confines.

“I am just glad we got a win,” Oregon guard Will Richardson said after scoring a career-high 26 points on New Year’s Day. “It has been rough lately for us, so it feels good for us.”

Utah (8-6, 1-3) has now been swept on the Oregon road swing three straight seasons and for the seventh time since the Runnin’ Utes have been in the Pac-12.

The Utes are 0-4 in true away games, 2-1 at neutral site games (although the 76-62 loss to TCU at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth wasn’t really a “neutral” site game) and 6-1 in home games. Their only home loss was to then-No. 18 BYU 75-64 in a game that was closer than the final score indicates.

“I couldn’t really tell you what (the problem is on the road),” guard Marco Anthony said Saturday after scoring 14 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the loss at Oregon. “But I can tell you that we are going to figure it out quickly so it is not a problem moving forward.”

Center Branden Carlson, who had 15 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes, said the chemistry and camaraderie is still good and the Utes will stay connected and unified.

“I mean, it is a long season,” Carlson said. “We got a lot of games still to play. We just gotta keep a positive attitude. We know there are things we need to fix. We can’t just come in feeling good each day. We gotta come in ready to work on things to improve and become the team that we want to be.”

Utah is now 10-27 against Oregon all-time and 2-20 against the Ducks in Eugene. Saturday’s game was there for the taking — Utah led by nine early in the second half — because these are not your grandfather’s Ducks.

“When you go on the road, you gotta overcome a lot of different things — the crowd and outside influences and all that kind of stuff,” Smith said. “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.”

The Utes flew home out of Portland Sunday morning and began preparing for a couple home games this week — Thursday against struggling Washington (7:30 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks) and Saturday against improved Washington State (4 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

Next week, they play at Arizona State on Jan. 13 and at Arizona on Jan. 15.

Putting a complete game together will be the focus, Anthony said.

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

If there was a bright spot for the Utes Saturday, it was the play of freshman guard Lazar Stefanovic. The Serbian plays fearlessly and doesn’t seem to be bothered by opposing crowds. Smith said more playing time could be coming Stefanovic’s way.

“Stef is a guy that just keeps getting better and better. Obviously the ball hasn’t always gone in the hole for him, but you can tell the game is slowing down for him,” Smith said. “He just makes so many winning plays. I mean, that first half I thought he was really, really good. I thought he played a great game. And at his size and his tremendous intelligence, he is a guy (who) we will be putting the ball in his hands a lot more as we keep moving forward through the season.”

The Utes should benefit a bit when forward Dusan Mahorcic returns from a knee injury in the coming weeks, and when Carlson gets completely healthy after battling COVID in mid-December.

“I feel like my healthy is getting back,” Carlson said after describing how he hit a running half-court shot at the halftime buzzer to give the Utes a 35-29 lead at the break. “I wouldn’t say I am 100% yet. My body is still tired. My lungs are still, it is hard to breathe once I get going too much. But I would say I am getting better and better each day.”

Carlson said he doesn’t wish the virus on anyone.

“Over the first few days when I had COVID, I was nauseous the whole time, couldn’t eat any solid foods without throwing up,” he said. “So I lost a couple pounds, but I am back up to where I was.”