Runnin’ Utes learn quickly from first loss, make plays down the stretch to beat Georgia Tech 68-64 in Fort Myers Tip-Off
Gabe Madsen scores 16 points and four other Utes reach double figures in gritty victory over ACC also-ran
Say this much about coach Craig Smith’s second University of Utah men’s basketball team: they are fast learners.
Four nights after failing to make the right plays down the stretch in a disheartening home loss to Sam Houston, the Utes came up clutch time and again in the last moments Monday night and defeated Georgia Tech 68-64 in the opening round of the Fort Myers Tip-Off in Florida.
“Good bounce back win for us after a very disappointing game on Thursday night,” Smith told ESPN 700 radio. “I thought we had two very good practices (after the 65-55 loss to Sam Houston). A lot of good performances by a lot of different people.”
“We did earn it. It was a roller coaster of a game. We saw about everything in that game, from both teams. What a great start. I thought we had a good finish, but not so good in-between. But there were a lot of really good things from tonight.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.
Five Utes reached double figures, led by Gabe Madsen’s 16 points, as Utah jumped out to leads of 12-0 and 23-4 early and led by eight at halftime before the Yellow Jackets stormed back.
Utah improved to 4-1 and will meet the winner of the late Mississippi State-Marquette game on Wednesday for the tournament title.
Lazar Stefanovic and Marco Anthony added 11 points apiece and Rollie Worster had 10 and made some key baskets down the stretch before fouling out. Branden Carlson added 10 points, all in the first half, while Ben Carlson had nine rebounds.
“We did earn it. It was a roller coaster of a game. We saw about everything in that game, from both teams,” Smith told the station. “What a great start. I thought we had a good finish, but not so good in-between. But there were a lot of really good things from tonight.”
One of the best belonged to freshman Keba Keita, who missed the loss last week with an ankle injury and didn’t play in the first half. The Wasatch Academy product entered the game midway through the second half after Georgia Tech had taken its first lead and changed the game.
Keita made a rebound basket with just under nine minutes remaining to knot the score at 50-50, then had a dunk a few minutes later to tie the score again. On the defensive end he altered some shots and protected the rim.
“I thought Keba Keita (four points, two rebounds) changed the game, his rim protection, some of those rebounds he got,” Smith said. “We played him and Carlson together, and I thought that really kind of flipped the script. You know, in our favor, in a lot of ways.”
Worster, who made a gigantic play of his own with a 3-pointer with 5:48 left, agreed with his coach.
“Huge,” Worster said of Keita’s play. “I think he flipped their momentum and gave us some momentum playing our brand of basketball.”
Worster’s triple spurred a 7-0 run for the Utes. Anthony, Stefanovic and Ben Carlson also made big shots in the final five minutes, something the Utes weren’t able to do against the Bearkats in the Huntsman Center.
“We came out great. We came out playing really hard, physical. I think from our loss, we learned that we need to play physical the whole game, from the start,” Worster said. “We still had some lapses throughout the game, I guess, but it was just great to get that win and get back to rolling for the Utes.”
The Utes won despite committing 19 turnovers, which the Jackets turned into 24 points. Utah had just six points off five Georgia Tech turnovers.
The Jackets let it get away because they shot just 35% from the floor (24 of 69) and 22% from deep (5 of 23). They also missed some big free throws down the stretch.
Utah had its full complement of players for the first time this season; Keita, Luka Tarlac and Anthony have all missed games due to injury or illness.
“This is a new team. We have a lot of things we are trying to negotiate. That’s not an excuse,” Smith said. “… We are trying to figure things out here with a lot of different things. We really tried to simplify what we are doing, just so we are more aggressive and on attack.”