Analysis: Runnin’ Utes gut out an overtime win at Washington State they wouldn’t have won last year
Utah’s men’s basketball team starts 2-0 in the Pac-12 for the first time since the 2017-18 season and just the third time as a Pac-12 program
A sleepy Sunday afternoon at near-empty Beasley Coliseum proved that this year’s version of the Runnin’ Utes is a lot more clutch than last year’s edition.
Rollie Worster scored a season-high 19 points and made two huge free throws with 25.1 seconds remaining in overtime as Utah improved to 2-0 in Pac-12 play with a 67-65 win over Washington State in front of 2,009 fans in Pullman, Washington.
“What a crazy, wild game in so many ways. We kept telling our guys late in that second half and overtime, ‘we are going to find a way to win.’” — Utah coach Craig Smith
It wasn’t pretty, and Utah blew a 33-25 point halftime lead with a sloppy, turnover-filled second half. But when the game was on the line in the final few minutes and the overtime session, Utah delivered the big plays needed to win.
“What a crazy, wild game in so many ways,” Utah coach Craig Smith told KALL AM 700 radio. “We kept telling our guys late in that second half and overtime, ‘we are going to find a way to win.’”
That they did. Even without their best player on the floor in clutch time — Branden Carlson fouled out with 6 minutes, 31 seconds left — the Utes plowed forward with confidence, confidence that was missing in Smith’s first year.
“It means a ton,” said Worster, who almost had a triple-double in Utah’s upset of No. 4 Arizona last Thursday in the Huntsman Center. “It means we can tough games out, and I think moving forward it is really big for us to get ahead, win a couple games, especially conference games, is huge.
“I love this team, this program,” Worster continued. “I think we are going in the right direction.”
The Utes (2-0, 7-2) also made the most important free throws, which proved to be the difference, although they finished just 14 of 23 from the stripe and committed 19 turnovers — most of those giveaways coming in the first five minutes of each half.
“We found a way to win, and that is what counts,” Smith said. “When you win on the road in Pac-12 play, you take it. … I am telling you, this will be a Quad 1 win when it is all said and done. … They are tough to beat here.”
The Cougars fell to 0-2 in league play, 3-4 overall, and will rue some missed free throws down the stretch that could have put the game away.
Washington State’s Justin Powell made only one of two free throws with 15.6 seconds left in regulation to give the home team a 59-56 lead.
That’s when Marco Anthony completed a 3-point play with 6.4 seconds left in regulation. Keba Keita blocked Dylan Darling’s layup at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
Anthony scored after Worster drove to the rim, stumbled, and then dished off to the sixth-year senior for a layup and the foul.
“I was looking corner for Gabe (Madsen),” Worster said. “I actually tripped on my own feet a little and then I shuffled it to Marco, and I heard a whistle and it bounced in. Just a great finish and really clutch of him to make that free throw.”
Given that second life, Utah took control early in overtime, and Madsen’s 3-pointer with 3:15 left in overtime staked Utah to a 65-59 lead. Powell hit a 3-pointer with 2:10 left to cut the lead to three. Then DJ Rodman, a 40% free-throw shooter, made three free throws to tie it with 30 seconds left.
Enter Worster, who was fouled bringing the ball up the court. The free throws gave him 18 and 19 points to go with seven rebounds and four assists.
The Utes then turned to their defense to pull it out, a defense that is No. 2 in the country in field goal percentage defense and No. 6 in 3-point percentage defense.
“I think it just shows our resilience. We are a tough team. We are going to lay it all out there,” Worster said. “I thought it got a little bit ugly for us tonight, the way we played, and we gotta clean some stuff up, obviously, but just being able to battle through the ups and the downs, withstand their runs, finish the game the way we did, is huge for us.”
Wazzu was just 4 of 30 from 3-point range (13%) after entering the game as one of the top-10 3-point shooting teams in the country. The Cougars, who lost to Oregon in their league opener, were just 17 of 26 from the free-throw line.
“We stayed the course and stayed the course. Of course we got fortunate when they missed that free throw with (15 seconds left), but that is sports, man,” Smith said. “They were fortunate, too.”
But Utah was more clutch, after a 2021-22 season when that word wasn’t used a lot in regards to the Runnin’ Utes.