Branden Carlson’s illness, blowout loss to No. 7 UCLA allowed Runnin’ Utes to develop their bench
Reserves Bostyn Holt, Luka Tarlac and Mike Saunders got double-digit minutes in 68-49 setback that humbled tough-luck Utes
LOS ANGELES — There was a silver lining to the dark cloud that descended upon the Runnin’ Utes and their NCAA Tournament hopes here Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion in the 68-49 loss to a No. 7 UCLA team that is playing as well as any team in the country.
With star center Branden Carlson out with an illness and the Utes basically out of the game in the second half of the second half, coach Craig Smith got a good look at some seldom-used players such as Bostyn Holt, Luka Tarlac, Mike Saunders, Jaxon Brenchley and Wilguens Exacte.
“Obviously they are an elite team. You don’t get ranked seventh in the country at this time of year unless you are really, really good.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith on No. 7 UCLA
Trailing 46-28 after UCLA opened the second half on a 15-6 run, Smith gradually began pulling a lot of his starters — with the exception of Gabe Madsen — and gave the aforementioned a chance to show what they could do.
Exacte made a couple 3-pointers in the final five minutes, while Saunders, the transfer from Cincinnati who prepped at Utah’s Wasatch Academy, got on the floor for the first time since Dec. 13 against UTSA and hit a 3-pointer and recorded three assists.
Smith said it wasn’t a sign that he was throwing in the towel, or conceding, in an attempt to rest key guys before Saturday’s quick turnaround game at USC across town (8:30 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks). Rather, it was a reward for the way the backups practiced this week.
“I thought Bostyn Holt and Wilguens and Brenchley and Mike, and Keba, those guys had really good practices this week, and got better,” Smith said. “You never concede, but I felt like those guys were giving us some really good minutes.”
As Smith mentioned several times in his postgame interview, the Utes (12-6, 5-2) faced long odds, even had the 7-foot Carlson been in the lineup. UCLA is that good.
“Obviously they are an elite team,” he said. “You don’t get ranked seventh in the country at this time of year unless you are really, really good.”
Without their leading scorer and his 15.7 points per game average, in addition to his presence in the paint, the Utes had very little chance against the Bruins (15-2, 6-0), who won their 12th straight game and 31st at home with fans in the building.
Smith said Carlson, a late scratch, developed flu-like symptoms before the game and “really wanted to play,” but it just wasn’t meant to be. As of midday Friday, Carlson’s status for Saturday’s game at USC (12-5, 4-2) had not been updated by the team.
Guard Lazar Stefanovic got his first start since the game against Georgia Tech in Florida as the Utes went small in an attempt to get the best ball-handlers and decision-makers on the floor.
“We know we need to develop our bench. We have to get more production from our bench and it just got to the point where it felt like it is going to be really really, really difficult (to come back), so the last six minutes or so (reserves took over),” Smith said of his late-game tactics.
The 6-foot-6 Holt, a senior forward from Portland, Oregon, who transferred from Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College before the 2021-22 season and then tore his ACL early in that campaign, was especially effective in the first half. He finished with six points in 23 minutes, but committed five of the Utes’ 16 turnovers.
“I am just staying ready for whenever my number is called,” said Holt, who had appeared in 12 games and logged 93 minutes before Thursday’s extended minutes. “I am throwing together some good practices. We have been getting after it in practice, so I am just staying ready to go out there and just make a play and perform.”
Holt, who logged 13 minutes in Utah’s 70-60 loss to Oregon last Saturday, said his surgically repaired knee is feeling better and better with each passing day.
“Right now I feel great. But there is always more work to put into the knee. It is a serious injury,” he said. “I am feeling good and I am just happy to be back.”
Point guard Rollie Worster, who led the Utes with 12 points, said the Utes didn’t panic when they learned just before the opening tip that Carlson wouldn’t be playing. The junior from Missoula, Montana, said they will focus on issues they can control, such as taking better care of the basketball and executing more crisply, if Carlson can’t play Saturday.
“We missed BC out there, obviously,” Worster said. “But again, we gotta have that next-man--up mentality and come out better than we did.”
USC forced Colorado into 22 turnovers Thursday and thrives on getting takeaways via its 2-2-1 press. The Trojans aren’t as deep inside as UCLA, but have an elite guard line featuring Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis.
Peterson had 15 against the Buffs, while Ellis had 14 points with six assists and no turnovers. Josh Morgan had 12 points and keyed the USC defense with four blocked shots and three steals.
“We gotta value the ball and take better shots consistently,” Smith said. “… Either one of those guys (Peterson or Ellis) can take over a game. And we saw (last year) Boogie Ellis at their place was really good, and Drew Peterson at our place was really, really good. We had no answer for either of those guys.”
Runnin’ Utes on the air
Utah (12-6, 5-2)
at USC (12-5, 4-2)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST
At Galen Center
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700
Vincent Iwuchukwu, the 7-foot-1 USC freshman who collapsed during a summer workout, played for the first time all season against Colorado and received a standing ovation in the first half when he entered the game. He did not score, going 0 for 2.
In short, it will be another tough road test for the Utes, whose NET ranking dropped from 43 to 53 with the loss at UCLA.
“I think we will learn a lot of things when we watch the film, and grow and develop from it and understand what it takes to be a top-10 team in the country,” Smith said. “… We are not going to be UCLA. We have to be our (best) version of ourselves. We were able to play a lot of guys so hopefully they will grow and develop from this experience on the floor.”