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Analysis: Runnin’ Utes tune up for rivalry game at BYU Saturday with a 91-70 thumping of UTSA Roadrunners

Branden Carlson scores a career-high 27 points and red-hot Runnin’ Utes beat the Roadrunners, turn attention to rivalry game at BYU.

SHARE Analysis: Runnin’ Utes tune up for rivalry game at BYU Saturday with a 91-70 thumping of UTSA Roadrunners
Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (wearing white) dunks.

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) dunks during the game against the UTSA Roadrunners at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

At one point during Tuesday’s mismatch with the UTSA Roadrunners, University of Utah coach Craig Smith jumped off the bench to congratulate Branden Carlson on a hustle play that resulted in a 3-point play the old-fashioned way for the Utes’ star senior center.

The on-court gesture was entirely fitting, because if there is something different about these Utes than last year’s Utes, it is that they are entirely more physical, much better defensively, and incredibly adept at chasing down loose balls.

“That is what we are about,” Smith said. “That needs to be our mentality.”

“I try to think it is another game, but it is really not. It is always an exciting game. With a rivalry game, you know both teams are out to bring their best each game.” — Utah senior center Branden Carlson on facing BYU on Saturday.

And Carlson, the 7-footer who has added 15-20 pounds to his frame and a little bit of a much-needed nasty edge to his game, led the way. The former Bingham High star scored a career-high 27 points and added eight rebounds and four blocked shots as the Utes pummeled UTSA 91-70 in front of an announced crowd of 5,223 on a wintry night in Salt Lake City to win their fifth-straight game.

“Those kinds of plays set the tone,” Smith said, referring to plays by his captains, Carlson and Marco Anthony, that enabled the Utes to get their fifth win by 20 or more points this season. It is the first time Utah has done that since the 2014-15 season, and this season is only one-third over.

Anthony added 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, picking up his first double-double of the season and fourth as a Ute. Gabe Madsen (16) and Lazar Stefanovic (10) also reached double figures and Rollie Worster flirted with another triple-double, getting seven points, nine assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes.

In case you’ve forgotten that win over then-No. 4 Arizona a few weeks ago, these guys are pretty good. Up next for the 9-2 Utes is BYU on Saturday, but we will get to that in a second. For now, Utah (2-0 in Pac-12 play) seems to be a pretty good bet for postseason play, perhaps even the NCAA Tournament.

“I mean, I would say we have always been confident in ourselves. We know what we are capable of. And we know what we bring each day. You gotta have a little edge to you still,” Carlson said, assessing the Utes’ confidence level after another cakewalk at the Huntsman Center. “We can’t get complacent with the success we have been having. We just have to take each game like our record is 0-0, and their record is 0-0. We just gotta come out ready to compete.”

The Utes did that from the opening tip Tuesday as snow pounded the Wasatch Front outside the arena, jumping out to a quick 18-6 lead with 12:05 remaining in the first half.

Then UTSA jumped into a zone defense (did you see that, BYU?) and for five minutes Utah played as if it has never seen such a thing.

“A lot of teams don’t run zones,” Carlson said. “It just throws a loop at you and sometimes it is a little lack of communication for us out on the court.”

At the other end of the floor, the 5-5 Roadrunners (No. 298 in Kenpom.com) found some offensive rhythm and put together a 22-4 run to take a 28-22 lead.

“A couple bad lineups,” Smith said, taking some of the blame. “It was kind of an uneven game, the first half especially. … But we were able to steady the ship and go into halftime with some momentum.”

So there’s that.

Utah responded well, closing out the half on a 17-8 run. In the second half, the Utes picked up where they left off in the first half, going on an 11-1 run to put the game away.

The Utes shot 52.2% from the floor, and needed only five 3-pointers (on 18 attempts) to get to 91 points, which Smith viewed as a positive sign. UTSA shot 38.3%, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has watched Utah play this season.

The Utes are quickly becoming one of the best defensive teams in the country — they are in the top 10 in most significant defensive categories — and when they want to put the clamps on an overmatched opponent, they are usually successful.

For instance, UTSA’s Japhet Medor had 15 points in the first half, but Smith put Anthony on him in the second half and he cooled off considerably, finishing with 23.

“Certainly Marco and BC led the way that way, with their physicality,” Smith said.

Aside from that five-minute stretch in the first half, the Utes controlled the action throughout.

From the 12:05 mark to the 7:05 mark, the Utes looked like they had already started plotting for BYU. But with Utah trailing 28-22, Anthony hit a jumper in the paint, Worster splashed in a 3-pointer and Gabe Madsen hit a jumper and all was right again in Uteville.

Madsen left early for the locker room. Smith didn’t have a postgame update on the junior’s status, saying only that he didn’t think it was too serious and Madsen gave him the thumbs up that he was OK afterward.

That’s big, because the Utes want to be at full strength on Saturday, even though BYU has struggled this season and doesn’t appear to be, on paper, a match for the Utes. 

“I try to think it is another game, but it is really not,” said Carlson, one of the few local products on Utah’s roster. “It is always an exciting game. With a rivalry game, you know both teams are out to bring their best each game.

“And BYU is a good team, and has some good wins. I think they just beat Creighton,” Carlson continued. “So we are going to have some scouting to do. We are ready to go in and compete, but we are going to prepare like it is another game.”

Anthony says the rivalry game comes at a good time for the Utes — BYU has to play Western Oregon on Thursday.

“Thirty-three minutes does a lot to the bones,” he said. “We need some good rest.”