‘We need their help’: Runnin’ Utes are rolling again, want more fan support Saturday against red-hot Oregon
Having snapped its 10-game losing streak with a resounding 74-59 win over Oregon State, improving Utah eyes one of the Pac-12’s best teams
The Runnin’ Utes finally proved Thursday night at the Huntsman Center what they have been saying about themselves for more than a month now, that they are better than their overall losing record and 10-game losing streak indicate.
Utes on the air
Utah (9-14, 2-11)
vs. Oregon (14-7, 7-3)
Saturday, 6:30 p.m. MST
At the Jon M. Huntsman Center
Radio: ESPN 700 AM
They demolished an Oregon State team that they had lost to by 12 points in Corvallis last month and suddenly look capable of pulling off a few upsets in February that will make them a candidate to make a decent run in the Pac-12 tournament in March.
Thursday’s 84-59 win in front of 7,388 fans, albeit against arguably the worst team in the league on their home floor, feels like it could be one of those breakthrough moments the Utes have been looking for, coach Craig Smith said after the historic 10-game skid became a thing of the past.
“Hopefully, it is (good) momentum for us,” Smith said, using the analogy of making a putt on the 10th hole that sets you up for a great back nine in golf after a miserable front nine. “Our guys know (they’re a good team). Like, our guys are still confident.”
Smith said when teams get “in a rut,” like the Utes (9-14, 2-11) were, the remainder of the season can go downhill fast. Somehow, Utah seems to have avoided that, while OSU has not.
“Our guys have never really gone down that (moping) road. There is just a level of pride here. They know we can perform better, after all the things that we have been through.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith
“Our guys have never really gone down that road,” Smith said. “There is just a level of pride here. They know we can perform better, after all the things that we have been through.”
The worst thing the Utes have been through has been the loss of starting center Branden Carlson for seven games due to COVID-19 and appendicitis. In his third game back from his appendectomy, he had 12 points and 10 rebounds and drew a game-high seven fouls on the Beavers.
Clearly, the Utes are a much better team when the 7-footer is healthy and on the floor.
“That was always a little bit in your hip pocket, like, ‘He’s still coming back, he’s still coming back,’” Smith said, recalling how the Utes lost 3-4 games during the skid to really good, often-ranked teams by the slimmest of margins. “Sometimes you find a way to win, or win like this (blowout of OSU), and you never know what can happen.”
If nothing else, the Utes’ season-best effort Thursday makes Saturday’s game against red-hot Oregon as intriguing as any February contest in Salt Lake City until No. 7 Arizona (18-2) visits on Feb. 24.
Tipoff is at 6:30 p.m. and the Utes will honor former Utes great Tom Chambers at halftime and his jersey will be hung in the rafters.
Oregon (14-7, 7-3) has won eight of its last nine after smothering Colorado 66-51 in Boulder Thursday, is tied for fourth place in the Pac-12 standings and suddenly a popular pick to be the league’s fourth entrant into the NCAA Tournament.
“Obviously we got a high level team coming in here that has been playing very, very well since our game (a 79-66 loss in Eugene on Jan. 1),” Smith said. “They have been playing at a high level. So, we will see. But, you know, we are going to enjoy this one (Thursday night) and get ready for Oregon tomorrow.”
A lot was made of how Utah made 15 3-pointers and committed just five turnovers in the win over OSU, but a big reason why the Utes got over the hump was due to their defense, Smith said. Even while playing “small ball” in the absence of backup center Dusan Mahorcic, suspended indefinitely, the Utes were stout against the Beavers.
“I thought we had a great mindset defensively. We held them under a point per possession, and like I have said many times, when you do that you have a chance to win, every single night,” Smith said. “And it has been a long time since we have done that. But we have really improved on the defensive end.”
The Beavers, an Elite Eight team last year that has dropped further than any team in major college basketball, were held to 39% shooting despite a height advantage. Utah appears to be heading in the opposite direction now.
“It is hard sometimes when you know you are getting better (and aren’t showing it),” Smith said. “You know it, you feel it, you can see it, it is plain as day. … But you don’t see the rewards in the win and loss column, and that can be difficult.”
Smith said those lessons learned should help the Utes down the stretch; they will have to win the conference tournament to make the Big Dance, but stranger things have happened. Oregon State showed that last year.
“Hoping that this can be a sign of what is left in the back end,” Smith said. “Starting (Thursday), five of our last eight games are at home, and you never know what can happen.”
Speaking of that, guard Lazar Stefanovic said the fact that Utah didn’t throw in the towel on the season, like the Beavers apparently have, shows its character and mental toughness.
“I always think that you learn more from losses than wins. I am not happy we lost so many in a row, but I think they made us so much stronger, and so much better, that we improved enormously throughout this period,” Stefanovic said.
The freshman who is blossoming into a star said the Utes can’t afford to rest on their laurels, especially with the Ducks in town. Guards Will Richardson (26), Jacob Young (22) and De’Vion Harmon (11) combined for 59 points in OU’s New Year’s Day win over the Utes.
“They had a little bit of a slower start in the season, but right now they are playing great,” Stefanovic said. “I hope even more fans show up for that game, because we need their help.”