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‘Don’t doubt us’: Runnin’ Utes hand second-year coach Craig Smith a signature win, upset No. 4 Arizona 81-66

Analysis: Picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12, Utah makes a big statement with 15-point conquest of previously undefeated Arizona.

SHARE ‘Don’t doubt us’: Runnin’ Utes hand second-year coach Craig Smith a signature win, upset No. 4 Arizona 81-66
Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (wearing white) celebrates

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) celebrates after his team’s win over the Arizona Wildcats at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

On the first day of December in coach Craig Smith’s second season at the helm, the Runnin’ Utes made a statement, sent a message, as it were, to the rest of the Pac-12 conference Thursday night at the Huntsman Center.

These guys just might be for real. Suffice it to say, they are going to be a much bigger factor in the league race than they were a year ago.

Branden Carlson made a career-high five 3-pointers en route to 22 points, and Rollie Worster flirted with a triple-double — 12 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists — as unranked and unheralded Utah stunned No. 4-ranked and previously undefeated Arizona 81-66 in front of about 6,000 delirious Utes fans and 500 or so disappointed Arizona fans in the Pac-12 opener for teams picked to finish 10th, and first, in the conference race.

“Don’t doubt us. Don’t count us out.” — Utah center Branden Carlson after scoring 22 points in the Utes’ 81-66 upset of No. 4 Arizona.

Talk about a fantastic start to a huge athletics weekend for the University of Utah, which sends its football team into the Pac-12 championship game against USC on Friday.

Wins don’t get much bigger than this, especially for a basketball program that went 11-20 last year, lost 10 straight games at one juncture, and won just four league games.

“Well, that’s a big-time win for our program,” said an emotional Smith after he hugged as many people as usually high-scoring Arizona (6-1) scored points. “What a great win. Arizona is so good, you just don’t realize (how big of a win it was).”

The Utes improved to 6-2 and suddenly have to be taken seriously the rest of the way. They will play at Washington State on Sunday, then go back to their non-conference schedule until the end of December.

What did the Utes say, exactly, on a night when they held the country’s highest scoring team, which was averaging 97.5 points, to 66 points on 35% shooting?

“Don’t doubt us,” said Carlson. “Don’t count us out.”

When Utah lost to Sam Houston on its home floor a couple weeks ago, some doubt might have crept in. But that’s a distant memory now.

“Our team has made a lot of growth the past 10 days,” Smith said.

Has it ever.

But this was no fluke. The Utes led wire-to-wire, jumping out to a quick 10-2 lead early and a 42-25 lead at halftime. 

Arizona cut the deficit to six with 14:06 and 13:36 remaining in the second half, but each time Utah had an answer, be it a Carlson 3-pointer or a timely bucket by a guy off the bench, as freshman Wilguens Exacte made when Oumar Ballo’s 3-point play swung the momentum the Wildcats’ way.

Utah’s bench outscored Arizona’s bench 19-7.

That was just one of the key stats in the upset. A few more: Arizona was a frosty 4 of 28 from 3-point range (14%) and the Utes won the rebounding battle, 51-42.

“I would just say we are a tough team. We are going to come out and play hard. Obviously you gotta have some talent,” Worster said after his career night. “I just credit our coaching staff. They had us really prepared. Coach Smith, assistants, everybody. … I just think we are going to be a team that is going to come out and give it 100% every night.”

Worster said he knew the Utes could have nights like this way back in the summer, when transfers such as Ben Carlson (11 points, 6 rebounds) and freshmen such as Keba Keita (seven points, 11 rebounds) arrived on campus.

“You always have to have that attitude that you can go out and beat anybody, that you can hang with anybody,” Worster said. “… We knew we would be really competitive. That just sets the bar really high for us.”

And puts a bit of a target on the Utes’ backs, as nobody saw this coming a few weeks ago, let alone a few months ago. 

Sure, there were a few tense moments in the second half of the second half, as Azuolas Tubelis made a 3-point play to get Arizona within 11 with 9:50 left. Gabe Madsen’s four-point play righted the Utes then, but the defending conference champions kept coming.

Tubelis finished with 20 and Ballo had 22 on 10 of 12 shooting, but guards Courtney Ramey, former Ute Pelle Larsson and Kerr Kriisa were a combined 5 of 27.

“Our guys really responded and found a way to win,” Smith said, thanking fans, the students and just about everybody else in the building who “really willed us to victory down the stretch.”

The coach especially wanted to thank the fans who held off going to Las Vegas for the football game until Friday to watch a basketball team that is clearly better than it was last year.

“A lot of great performances, but I just though we really played connected,” Smith said of the defense that he changed up a lot and seemingly had the Wildcats confused with, particularly in the first half.

“That’s been our deal this year — defense travels,” Smith added.

Smith talked Wednesday about how the game would be a “barometer” for the Utes, to see how good they are and can be, but never in his wildest dreams did he foresee a 15-point win over a team that won the Maui Classic last week.

“Our guys answered the bell,” he said. “… I know what I saw in Florida (when Utah beat Georgia Tech and took Mississippi State to the wire). These guys are incrementally getting better.”

Leading the way was Branden Carlson, who opened Utah’s scoring in both halves with 3-pointers, and “had a look like you would expect out of an all-league guy,” Smith said.

“I thought Branden had an unbelievable game. … Boy, did he make some monster shots tonight.”

So mark it down as a signature win for Smith in Year Two.

But don’t be surprised when there are quite a few more.