After weeks of knocking at the door, the Runnin’ Utes finally stepped inside and got over the hump, in the words of first-year coach Craig Smith, when they downed Stanford 60-56 at Maples Pavilion late Thursday night.

Utes on the air

Utah (10-16, 3-13)

vs. California (11-16, 4-12)

Saturday, 4 p.m. MST

Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, California

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700

Can they continue their upward trend?

That’s the big question Saturday, as Utah (10-16, 3-13) stays in the Bay Area and plays at Cal (11-16, 4-12) at 4 p.m. MST in a Pac-12 matchup featuring teams that are in 10th and 11th place in the league standings.

“I am not surprised (with the win). Stanford’s a good team, but I am not shocked,” Smith said after the Utes’ first true road win of the season. “The guys have had a tremendous attitude, one that craves improvement. We show up every day to practice ready to go to work. When you keep knocking at the door, you’re bound to break it open at some point.”

Sophomore point guard Rollie Worster concurred, saying the second win in the last 14 outings for the Utes could mark a turning point in the season.

“Not finishing games strong is something we have struggled with this year, so to be able to do it on the road, against a good team, I think gives us a lot of confidence,” Worster said.

“Not finishing games strong is something we have struggled with this year, so to be able to do it on the road, against a good team, I think gives us a lot of confidence.” — Utah guard Rollie Worster

Of course, the last time the Utes snapped a lengthy losing skid, they failed to capitalize on the momentum that the 84-59 win over Oregon State on Feb. 3 brought to the program. They lost at home to Oregon, 80-77, and at Colorado, 81-76, failing to make plays down the stretch on both occasions.

Thursday in front of a sparse crowd of 2,437 at Maples Pavilion, the Utes were outstanding at both ends of the floor during the final nine minutes. Stanford led 49-41 when Jaiden Delaire followed his own miss with a rebound basket at the 9:28 mark of the second half. 

That was the Cardinal’s 13th offensive rebound, and 12th and 13th second-chance point. They would get just one more offensive rebound, and one more field goal, the remainder of the game, the field goal coming with 16.9 seconds remaining and the Utes leading by five.

“We did what we needed to do on the defensive end and just did enough on the offensive end,” Smith said. “It was a grinder. We held them to .91 points a possession, and if you do that you are probably going to win the game.”

Defensive breakdowns in the final few minutes have cost the Utes three or four wins this season, but not on this night. 

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With Utah trailing 54-50, Worster came up with a huge steal with 3:17 remaining and got the ball to freshman Gabe Madsen, who fed Both Gach for a fastbreak layup. Gach hustled back and blocked Brandon Angel’s layup. Eight seconds later, Marco Anthony found Branden Carlson for a layup and the Utes had tied the score at 54 apiece, just like that.

Carlson came up with a steal on Stanford’s next possession, and Madsen hit what turned out to be the game-winning 3-pointer with 1:42 left.

“People are going to talk about Gabe’s 3, and deservedly so. … But Both rotated over and just made an unbelievable play at the rim and forced the missed shot when it looked like they were going to get a dunk or an easy finish,” Smith said. “If he doesn’t make that play, they probably go up four. That was a monstrous play, and we broke it down and got an easy one back the other way.”

Utah guard Both Gach blocks a shot by Stanford forward Brandon Angel during game in Stanford, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. | Darren Yamashita, Associated Press

The Utes finished holding Stanford to 36% shooting from floor, including 26% (8 of 30) from 3-point range.

“Defensive rebounding is what really got us to close that gap and helped us ultimately get the lead,” Worster said. “And then also just getting consecutive stops was huge for us.”

Smith said the Utes have “made a lot of progress” on the defensive end, even while losing their most formidable inside presence, dismissed backup center Dusan Mahorcic — who is back in the transfer portal, according to Transfer Tapes.

“Defense has certainly been a big emphasis here recently,” Smith said. “I thought we got a little bit away from that in the Colorado game where we lost some poise, and maybe some discipline. And we all learned from that. The players did, the coaching staff did, everybody did.”

Suddenly, it looks like the Utes may be able to string a few wins together before the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas March 9-12, perhaps even climb a few notches up the league standings. The top eight is probably out of reach, but ninth-place Arizona State and 10th-place Cal appear vulnerable.

After Saturday’s rematch with the Bears — Utah won 66-58 at the Huntsman Center on Dec. 5 — the Utes return to SLC to host No. 3 Arizona on Thursday and Arizona State a week from Saturday before concluding the regular season at home against Colorado on March 5.

Beating the Wildcats (23-2) seems unlikely — although not impossible — but going 3-1 the rest of the way is a reasonable goal.

Cal swept the Oregon schools on the road last week and was playing better, but had a setback Thursday night in a 70-62 loss to Colorado.

On Feb. 4, Cal announced that senior forward Andre Kelly will miss the remainder of the season with an ankle injury. Kelly had four points and eight rebounds in the first matchup with the Utes, as Cal had a 35-29 halftime lead before Utah opened the second half on a 10-0 run and picked up its first Pac-12 win of 2021-22.