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Utah picks up its first Pac-12 road sweep in 3 years, but it may have come at a price

Marco Anthony scores 13 points and Utah wins 60-58 when Cal guard Jordan Shepherd’s 3-pointer at the buzzer falls short

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Utah center Branden Carlson (35) shoots over California forward Lars Thiemann (21)

Utah center Branden Carlson (35) shoots over California forward Lars Thiemann (21) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Pay no attention to that losing record, the historic 10-game losing streak that covered the entire month of January or the fact that the Utah Runnin’ Utes have spent time in the cellar of the Pac-12 men’s basketball standings for a good chunk of the season.

This could be a dangerous team come March, first-year coach Craig Smith has said for the past couple of weeks now, and on Saturday afternoon in the Bay Area, the Utes proved their coach to be correct.

Utah completed a Pac-12 road sweep for the first time since February of 2019, beating the pesky Cal Bears 60-58 in Berkeley, California, on Saturday.

The victory came two days after Utah upset Stanford 60-56 across the bay.

“I just feel like every week we have incrementally gotten a little bit better. Our guys have flipped the script in a great way.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

Suddenly, Utah (11-16, 4-13) is the team nobody wants to see at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas next month.

Heck, the No. 2 Arizona Wildcats, who were awarded a No. 1 seed for the Big Dance when the first bracket reveal was announced Saturday, might even have to be concerned a little bit for next Thursday’s game at the Huntsman Center.

Utah is playing that well — at least on defense.

“I just feel like every week we have incrementally gotten a little bit better,” Smith said. “Our guys have flipped the script in a great way.”

While picking up their fourth conference win, the Utes might just have lost a key component to their mid-February upswing, however. 

Star center Branden Carlson rolled his ankle with three minutes, 33 seconds remaining against the Bears and did not return.

That Utah led 55-51 at the time and was able to hang on down the stretch without their best player is a testament to learning from all those growing pains in December and January.

Senior Riley Battin entered and made two big plays in the final few minutes, knocking down a shot in the paint and then forcing Cal’s Jordan Shepherd — more on him later — to commit a turnover on the other end.

“Riley didn’t get a ton of time, but he stepped in there when Carlson got hurt and made a big basket there to get us back up to six-point lead and was very, very sound for us,” Smith said.

“So we found a way to get it done.”

Smith didn’t have a specific update on Carlson’s injury or condition in his postgame remarks to the media.

He did say the “silver lining” to the injury is that Carlson returned the next game after spraining his ankle against USC on Dec. 1.

“I have coached a lot of good players who have had ankle injuries, and they know how to negotiate it, they know how to handle it and manage it,” Smith said.

“So I am hoping that that is what the end prognosis is, but I don’t have any concrete information.”

California fell to 11-17 and 4-13 with the loss, having been swept at home this weekend by the mountain schools.

Utah defeated the Bears 66-58 in Salt Lake City on Dec. 5, and this game was eerily similar, until it wasn’t.

Utah led for more than 32 minutes and by as many as 12 points early in the second half, but Cal kept coming.

The Utes went more than six minutes without a field goal in the second half until Carlson stopped the bleeding with an inside bucket.

He had eight points and five rebounds before the ankle injury.

Cal’s Kuany Kuany, a junior, hit two free throws with 19 seconds remaining to cut Utah’s lead to two.

However, Utah freshman Lazar Stefanovic made a pair of freebies with 11.6 seconds left. 

Marco Anthony made a free throw with 4.3 seconds left to push Utah’s lead to two. Shepherd launched a decent-chance 3-pointer from about 35 feet to beat the buzzer, but it was wide and the Utes had the sweep.

“Marco was on him, and I was kinda in the gap. When he shot it, I just turned and hoped it didn’t go in,” Rollie Worster said.

“I had a weird angle, so I didn’t know the trajectory of the ball. We are just happy it missed.”

Shepherd entered the game with a 14.3 scoring average but was held down by Anthony, who complemented his outstanding defensive game with another solid offensive game: 13 points, four rebounds and four assists.

“That’s just the way I feel like I play defense,” Anthony said. “I take a lot of pride at that end, and (Shepherd’s) a really good player, and I was glad that that helped us win this game.”

Junior Lars Thiemann led the Bears with 16 points and eight rebounds, both career highs. Jalen Celestine, who hit a 3-pointer with 4.3 seconds left to get Cal within a point, added 10.

“It feels amazing,” Anthony said of the win. “We have been on the other side of the roller coaster these past few weeks, but we really felt we were on the right track and finally got over that hump and got the sweep here in Cali.”

The Utes fell behind 7-2 early, then simply began overwhelming the Bears, who had won two of their last three games.

Anthony sparked an 11-0 run, capped by a 3-pointer by Gabe Madsen, and had 10 points in the first half, one more than his season average.

Lahat Thioune gave the Utes a lift off the bench with six first-half points, and Utah’s bench outscored Cal’s bench 15-0 in the first half, 21-10 in the game.

Credit Cal, which has a NET ranking of 135, for not folding after trailing 32-24 at halftime. Utah held the Bears to 39% shooting, including 3 of 16 from 3-point range.

“It was a good win for the Utes,” Smith said. “It was a grinder in every way, shape and form, and you might characterize it as a root canal at times, specifically in the second half.”

Smith said Utah’s improved play of late is due to three primary reasons: Sticking together, digging in on the defensive end and not turning the ball over as much as they were in January.

Also, having Carlson back in the lineup after a Jan. 8 appendectomy has made a huge difference.

“We have grown together to get the wins, but I think we have been growing together for quite sometime now,” Smith said. “

I would say it really kind of started the week going into Arizona (an 82-64 loss on Jan. 15). We ended up losing that game, but I thought we played very well, pretty well for 28 minutes or so.”

If the Utes can put together 40 minutes or so on Thursday, they’ve got a shot. They’ve already proven they can’t be taken lightly in March.