Just when it appeared the Runnin’ Utes were turning the corner on a disappointing season and getting one of their top players back, Wednesday night happened on the Palouse.

That near-upset of No. 9 UCLA, a competitive contest against No. 16 USC, and decent showings the weekend before at the Arizona schools all went out the window as Utah turned in its worst performance of the season.

The Utes trailed Washington State by as many as 24 points in the second half of the Pac-12 game at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, Washington, before falling 71-54 and suffering their ninth straight loss. Utah (8-13, 1-10) took a big step backwards and is mired in last place in the conference standings by two full games.

“Certainly, offensively we took a step backwards tonight,” coach Craig Smith said. “We have to rectify that and come back and play well on Saturday (against Washington).”

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Nine consecutive losses ties a program high. Under coach Vadal Peterson, the Utes lost 48-47 to Nebraska on Dec. 30, 1935, to begin a nine-game slide that continued well into 1936. After losing to San Jose State, Stanford, Santa Clara, Utah State (three times) and BYU (twice), they snapped the skid on Feb. 1, 1936, with a 35-34 win at Utah State.

The Utes finished 7-15 that year, and 4-8 in the Rocky Mountain Conference. The following year, they went 17-7 overall and 7-5 in league play to tie for the conference championship. So there’s that.

“We gotta have two really good practices going into that game against Washington, and we gotta play better on the road.” — Utah coach Craig Smith

Unfortunately, their schedule in 2021-22 is much more difficult, having joined the Pac-12 in 2011-12.

“We gotta have two really good practices going into that game against Washington, and we gotta play better on the road,” Smith said.

Washington (9-8, 4-3) plays host to Colorado on Thursday night having won four of its last six games. After overcoming a 14-point deficit with 14 minutes remaining to down the Utes 74-68 in Salt Lake City on Jan. 6, Washington lost at Colorado before defeating California, Stanford and Oregon State.

The Huskies were blown out 84-56 at Oregon last Sunday.

“Washington presents its own unique challenge in terms of that zone that they play,” Smith said. “I thought we did a really good job against them at home, and handled their zone for 30 minutes or so very, very well.”

Then everything fell apart — just as it did in the middle of the second half Wednesday night in front of an announced crowd of 3,064 at Beasley.

The coach said the Utes defended well enough to win — Wazzu shot 37% from the field — but were awful finishing defensive possessions with rebounds and turned the ball over 19 times, which led to 19 points.

Wazzu had just 10 turnovers.

“They hit some freebies, and then when you are on the road, it just has this compound effect that is difficult to overcome,” Smith said.

Junior center Branden Carlson returned from an appendectomy and played reasonably well for a 7-footer who had missed the five previous games. He was 3 of 4 from the field, including a 3-pointer, and scored eight points in 19 minutes, with two rebounds. But he had three turnovers, and at times played tentatively.

Utah guards David Jenkins Jr., right, and Both Gach, center, double team Washington State guard Noah Williams during game, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Pullman, Wash. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

“We are happy he is back,” said freshman guard Lazar Stefanovic. “He is going to need some time to get back to the level he was. But he is a great player. We all trust in him. … I told him he needs to trust in himself, because we need him. He’s a huge part of what we do.”

That’s especially true if Smith goes small again, as he did Wednesday when he started shooting guard Gabe Madsen in the place of power forward Riley Battin.

“We are going to play a little bit smaller,” Smith said. “I am not saying we are going to exclusively do that. But we are certainly used to playing Marco (Anthony) as our quote-unquote four man, so to speak.”

Runnin’ Utes tie the longest losing streak in program history with 71-54 loss at Washington State

The Runnin’ Utes flew back to Salt Lake City on Wednesday night via charter, and will practice Thursday and Friday at home before flying to Seattle Friday afternoon.

A loss Saturday would give them the longest losing streak in school history, 10 games, which they obviously want to avoid. Next week, they will host the Oregon schools at the Huntsman Center.

The Utes have never lost more than four straight home games in their long and glorious basketball history.