From afar, the Runnin’ Utes look like a team in turmoil.

First-year coach Craig Smith’s team has lost a program-record 10 straight games. On Saturday, before struggling Utah’s big Pac-12 game at Washington, Smith announced that valuable big man Dusan Mahorcic has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules.

But looks can be deceiving, as the heartbreaking 77-73 loss to the surging Huskies in double overtime showed.

The beleaguered Utes put together arguably their best road effort of the disappointing 2021-22 season, and didn’t come within a whisker of quitting. But they did come within a whisker of winning, thanks to a gritty, never-say-die attitude that left Smith defending his club in his postgame comments.

“A really good effort by our guys tonight. I am just so proud of our guys,” Smith said. “Obviously we had every chance to win the game, and really competed hard in all facets.”

In a season full of heartbreaking losses, this was perhaps the toughest to swallow for Utah (8-14, 1-11), which hasn’t won since edging Fresno State 55-50 on Dec. 21 in Salt Lake City. Utah’s longest losing skid until this year was way back in 1935-36 when it dropped nine straight under coach Vadal Peterson.

Utah guard Both Gach pulls down a rebound despite the pressure from Washington guard Jamal Bey during game, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, in Seattle. | Jennifer Buchanan, The Seattle Times via AP

The Utes bounced back the following year with a 17-7 record and Rocky Mountain Conference championship, in case you need some hope that this thing will get turned around quickly. Smith believes it will, saying chins have never dropped, shoulders have never slumped and effort has never waned throughout the skid.

“We gotta keep growing and keep learning from this,” he said. “We had four kills (a kill is three straight defensive stops) in the second half. But certainly, it is a tough one.”

“We had a great look to our team, and a great spirit to it, but it is hard. I mean, obviously it is hard. We haven’t seen the victory column in a while. So it hurts. Losing sucks. But I did think we did a whole lot of really good things. And if we keep doing these types of things, things are going to work out well for us.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

Next up is Thursday’s game at the Huntsman Center against Oregon State, the closest team to last-place Utah in the Pac-12 standings. Utah has lost four straight home games only eight times in its long and glorious run of basketball success, but never five in a row in Salt Lake City. So there’s that.

Rest assured, if the Utes play as hard as they did at Montlake, they will be OK.

“We had a great look to our team, and a great spirit to it, but it is hard,” Smith said. “I mean, obviously it is hard. We haven’t seen the victory column in a while. So it hurts. Losing sucks.

“But I did think we did a whole lot of really good things. And if we keep doing these types of things, things are going to work out well for us.”

So how did this one get away?

Washington’s Terrell Bown Jr. scored 30 points and Washington took advantage of 20 Utah turnovers, including seven in the five-minute overtime sessions in front of an announced crowd of 7,729 at Alaska Airlines Arena. The Huskies aren’t the team picked to finish last in the Pac-12 in preseason polls — they have now won five of their last six games, the only setback in that stretch was vastly improved Oregon.

Utah guard Gabe Madsen goes high over Washington guard Terrell Brown Jr. to catch a pass during game, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, in Seattle. | Jennifer Buchanan, The Seattle Times via AP

Utah had chances to win at the end of regulation and first overtime, but either missed shots or didn’t get them off in time. Utah was outscored 9-5 in the second overtime.

“Obviously, down the stretch we had a couple opportunities there, whether it is one more stop, or the one turnover, or Both’s little runner at the end of regulation falls in, or what have you,” Smith said.

Utah led by two and had the ball with 28 seconds left in regulation, but committed a turnover to Washington’s full court press and lost the lead when Brown — the Pac-12’s leading scorer — sank a pair of free throws with 16.5 seconds left.

Both Gach’s driving bank shot went awry, forcing the first overtime.

Utah had a 65-61 lead with 3:39 remaining and a 68-66 lead with 1:12 left in the first overtime when Branden Carlson hit a 3-pointer, but couldn’t hold it. Brown’s basket with 37 seconds left sent the contest into a second overtime.

Gach came up with a steal in the final moments of the first overtime and was charging toward Utah’s basket, but his shot at the buzzer — which may not have counted — wasn’t close.

The Utes never led in the second overtime as UW’s Daejon Davis and Cole Bajema hit 3-pointers in the first two minutes.

Carlson led the Utes with 18 points on 7 of 13 shooting, while Marco Anthony chipped in 13. Point guard Rollie Worster added 10, all in the first half, before fouling out. 

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Washington shot 44%, while Utah shot 39%. Despite not having Mahorcic and playing small ball for the second straight game — freshman guard Gabe Madsen made his second straight start — the Utes won the rebounding battle 36-34.

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They were outscored 36-20 in the paint. But it was those seven turnovers in the overtime periods, some of them on offensive fouls when the Utes seemed bent to get to the rim at any cost, that proved costly.

“Any time you have an empty possession, that hurts you,” Smith said. “In regulation we had 13 turnovers. That’s not bad. For us, that’s a good number, generally speaking. But seven in 10 minutes in two overtimes is a struggle. When you have those empty possessions and you are not getting shots at the rim, or getting shots up, that really, really hurts.”

Mahorcic did not make the trip to Seattle, so obviously the team wasn’t surprised or adversely affected when the announcement of his suspension came an hour before tip-off. Smith was asked if the Serbian’s suspension was the result of just one thing, or if it has been building. 

He declined to elaborate, saying he wants the news release the athletic department issued to remain his only comment on the matter. 

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