First-year Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith continues to apologize for sounding like a broken record, and his team continues to play like something needs fixing in the final minutes of close basketball games.

That familiar storyline to the 2021-22 season played out again Saturday night in Boulder, Colorado, as the gritty and determined Utes gave it all they had for most of the game but fell short when it mattered most.

Overcoming 11-point deficits in both halves, Colorado escaped with an 81-76 win in front of an announced crowd of 7,988 at CU Events Center.

“We will learn from this and grow and get better,” Smith said.

Trouble is, the Utes are running out of games. They are improving — that’s fairly easy to see — but with these guys, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. 

They keep repeating the same costly mistakes, particularly late in winnable games.

“I don’t think it is specifically one thing. I just think each game there is a different aspect that just hurts us in the end. Like tonight, one of them was we didn’t make our free throws, where usually we are a good free-throw shooting team.” — Utah center Branden Carlson

Saturday night, the problem, aside from not making plays in the final few minutes, was free throws.

The Utes didn’t get to shoot enough of them to keep pace with Colorado, and when Utah did get them, it didn’t make them like it has been for most of the first 23 games of the season.

“It is hard,” Smith said. “We are giving ourselves a chance to win some of these games in different ways, and I love how hard we are playing, but we missed two front ends in that first half.”

That’s four potential points the Utes — with very little margin for error — squandered away.

The Utes went 5 of 14 from the free-throw line in the first half, and 5 for 5 in the second half. 

“I don’t think it is specifically one thing (keeping Utah from winning close games),” said junior center Branden Carlson, who had a career-high 25 points, but only four in the second half.

“I just think each game there is a different aspect that just hurts us in the end. Like tonight, one of them was we didn’t make our free throws, where usually we are a good free-throw shooting team.”

Utah (9-16, 2-13) has now lost 12 of its last 13 games, and this one was much like the last half-dozen or so.

Once again, the Utes failed to finish. Add Colorado to the lengthy list of teams that have defeated Utah by five points or fewer this season.

Colorado (15-9, 7-7) outscored the Utes 32-17 in the last 10 minutes to get the much-needed win, its second in a row after three straight losses put it outside the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“The second half in particular was a very, very physical and rugged game,” Smith said.

Trying to win a true road game for the first time this season, Utah jumped out to an 8-0 lead and was up 29-18 with six minutes remaining in the first half.

But the Utes missed two free throws and the Buffs ended the half on a 15-7 run to get back in it.

Seemingly unfazed, the Utes got three 3-pointers from freshman Gabe Madsen in the first five minutes of the second half to take another 11-point lead.

But it slipped away, again.

Colorado took its first lead of the game, 66-65, with 4:29 left when Jabari Walker hit a pair of free throws, and then the Buffaloes gradually pulled away.

Walker had 16 of his team-high 22 points in the second half.

“He is a good player, and I just think he was getting hot for them at the end,” Carlson said. “He was making some tough plays, some tough finishes around the rim.

“So I mean, we just gotta do a better job of playing individual defense on (good players), and playing team defense.”

Carlson, who got in a full week of practice for the first time in months, according to Smith, was outstanding in the first half with 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting.

The rest of the Utes were 5 of 18 in the first half.

In the second half, Colorado figured out a way to slow down Carlson, and he cooled off considerably.

He finished 11 of 19 and only got to the line once, making 1 of 2 free throws.

“My teammates were doing a great job of just getting me the ball inside. I was hot in the first (half),” Carlson said.

“In the second half, yeah, I just think I might have been running out of gas in the end, just not going up as strong as I should have, and some of them just weren’t falling for me, and there may have been more contact than the refs were letting on.”

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Madsen (14 points) and Utah State transfers Marco Anthony (15 points, 12 rebounds) and Rollie Worster (12 points before fouling out) picked up the scoring slack in the second half, but the Utes suffered through a stretch with under four minutes left when they scored just four points — all on free throws — in six possessions.

Tristan da Silva’s four free throws with under 25 seconds remaining sealed it for the Buffs.

Utah was down by four with 22 seconds left, but didn’t get a good look out of timeout. What happened?

“It is a shot we have seen (Madsen) make, certainly,” Smith said, noting that CU did a good job jamming it up. “But it was rushed, and the degree of difficulty was high.”

Utah committed just seven turnovers, but turnover No. 6 came after Walker’s free throws with 4:08 left gave CU a 68-67 lead, and it was costly.

Carlson missed heavily defended shots on back-to-back possessions, and the backbreaker was probably Walker’s 3-point play with 1:48 left that pushed CU out to a 73-67 lead.

The Utes entered the game shooting 80% from the free-throw line, good enough for sixth in the country, but just as in last Saturday’s 80-77 loss to Oregon when they were 15 of 23, the misses were costly.

The Utes actually made more field goals, 29 to 25, and more 3-pointers, eight to seven, but couldn’t overcome the free-throw margin.

“The issue was we only got five free throws, and they had 20 free throws, in the second half,” Smith said. “… I mean, that is a 14-point differential from the line, and obviously they shot 10 more of them than us.”

The coach was also unhappy with Utah’s transition defense, as CU had 20 fast-break points.

“The free-throw battle and the transition game, we felt like those were going to be two of the biggest keys to the game, to find a way to win, and they won both of those, and hence they won by five,” Smith said.

Utah announced an hour before the game that senior big man Dusan Mahorcic is no longer in the Runnin’ Utes’ program. Mahorcic was suspended indefinitely on Jan. 29 for a violation of team rules.

Asked if something changed over the course of the last two weeks to take the discipline from suspension to dismissal, Smith declined further comment other than what was stated in the news release.