Runnin’ Utes tie the longest losing streak in program history with 71-54 loss at Washington State
Turnovers and poor defensive rebounding doom Utes in Pullman, Washington, but star center Branden Carlson returned after a five-game absence due to appendectomy
The University of Utah’s men’s basketball team has never been on a longer losing streak than the one it is on right now.
But nobody is losing hope on a season that began with five wins and a lot of promise. So said the Utes and coach Craig Smith late Wednesday night.
The Runnin’ Utes suffered their ninth-straight loss, matching a streak of futility from the 1935-36 season. They dropped a 71-54 decision to so-so Washington State in arguably their worst performance of a season that gets more and more forgettable with each passing week.
“We are obviously devastated about it,” said Utes guard Lazar Stefanovic, who led the team in scoring with 11 points. “I think we are a way better team than that, and we deserve to win more games. We have worked too hard for it.”
“We are obviously devastated about it. I think we are a way better team than that, and we deserve to win more games. We have worked too hard for it.” — Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic after the Runnin’ Utes suffered their ninth-straight loss, tying the longest losing streak in program history.
Not on this night, however. The Utes gave up 18 offensive rebounds, extra opportunities Wazzu turned into 15 second-chance points.
“They are an elite offensive rebounding team, top 40 in the country,” Utes coach Craig Smith said. “ They have great athleticism and size all the way up and down their lineup, and they certainly made us pay that way.”
Another culprit was turnovers, which has often been the case this season when the Utes (8-13, 1-10) venture out on the road. They committed 19, giveaways Wazzu (11-7, 4-3) turned into 19 points in the runaway win.
Washington State, an NCAA Tournament bubble team with a NET ranking of 58, led by as many as 24 points in the second half.
Smith used all kinds of different lineups, but to no avail. This Utah team’s margin for error is thin, as he’s said all season, and nothing but 40 minutes of execution will get it done in this league, especially on the road.
“What I think is, we just gotta step up, take a stand, and be better,” Stefanovic said. “There is no magical stick or something that can make all this vanish. It is us that needs to step up and stand for something, make a change, and win the games.”
Most of the shooting stats were fairly even. The Cougars launched 19 more shots than the Utes (65-46) and won despite shooting just 37% from the floor. Utah shot 39% and was a decent 35% from 3-point range.
“We had a good start, great rhythm, and then certainly after that we were just all over the map, mainly with our turnovers being the issue,” Smith said. “We shoot 47% in the first half, but with 13 turnovers, where you are not getting shots at the rim, that is going to really, really hurt you.”
For Utah, the most welcome development was that star center Branden Carlson returned to action after missing the last five games due to an appendicitis attack and subsequent appendectomy on January 8. Carlson entered the game with 15:53 left in the first half. He hit a 3-pointer on Utah’s first possession of the second half to trim the deficit to five, but otherwise had an understandably uneven performance.
“It was good to have Branden back,” Smith said. “He did some good things, struggled a little bit with some things, like our entire team did.”
The Utes opted for small-ball early, as shooting guard Gabe Madsen replaced power forward Riley Battin in the starting lineup after having scored a career-high 20 points in the loss to USC last Saturday. Madsen didn’t score in 17 minutes.
“We took a step backwards offensively tonight,” Smith acknowledged.
Battin didn’t play in first half, while David Jenkins Jr. didn’t enter game until 1:15 remained in first half and backup center Lahat Thioune didn’t enter game until :03 left first half. After starting, Dusan Mahorcic didn’t play at all in the second half and finished with four points in 10 minutes.
Smith said the Serbian wasn’t hurt. It was simply a coaching staff decision to not play him in the second half.
The Utes were fairly fortunate to trail just 33-25 at halftime, considering they went the final six minutes, 42 seconds of the half without a field goal. Utah entered the game averaging 12.6 turnovers per game, but had 13 in the first half.
“That is what they do to teams,” Smith said. “They make the game choppy and they make the game ugly.”
Stefanovic’s triples tied the score at 12-12 six minutes into the game, but the Utes would score on just one of their next nine possessions and Wazzu surged ahead, never to be tracked down.
Washington State attempted 33 shots in the first half, to just 17 for Utah.
Credit the Utes for not giving up, even when the home team’s lead was north of 20. Washington State went on a 22-3 run to take a 55-32 lead with just under 12 minutes remaining. The Utes put together an 11-2 run to cut the deficit to 15, but WSU regained the momentum and cruised to its fourth Pac-12 win.
The Cougars swept the Utes for the first time since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011-12, which is also the last time Utah had lost eight straight games — until Saturday vs. USC. Now the goal is to not record the longest losing streak ever in more than 100 years of basketball.
Stefanovic said the final score might not show it, but the Utes played better in the second half.
“I think most of our turnovers were in the first half,” he said. “I think we played more connected and better the second half. … But I think we weren’t ready right from the tip-off. They are the type of team that is very aggressive, and as soon as you step on the court you gotta be ready for them.”
Utah chartered to Pullman and returned home late Wednesday night. The Utes will fly back to Washington on Friday and take on the Washington Huskies on Saturday in Seattle.
“Disappointing night, no doubt, after I thought the last four games we played a lot better basketball,” Smith said. “So we gotta bounce back quickly to play on the road again against a good Washington team.”