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Runnin’ Utes return from Los Angeles road trip bloodied and bruised, but not ready to give up the fight

Utah slips to fourth place in the Pac-12 standings, turns attention to showdown with Washington State on Thursday at the Huntsman Center

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Southern California guard Drew Peterson (13) defends against Utah center Branden Carlson, bottom right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Southern California guard Drew Peterson (13) defends against Utah center Branden Carlson, bottom right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — After scoring 21 points in the first 22 minutes of game action before going scoreless the final 18 minutes or so in Utah’s 71-56 loss to USC, Branden Carlson sported a nasty looking pair of 3-inch scratches on his upper left arm as he chatted with reporters in the bowels of Galen Center on Saturday night.

Having been clawed pretty good by one of the Trojans, the 7-footer who had returned in a big way from what he called a “24-hour bug” that caused him to miss Utah’s 68-49 loss to No. 7 UCLA on Thursday was bloodied and bruised — not to mention exhausted — but certainly not defeated.

“We are not giving up any time soon. We are still in this thing. We are going to keep bringing the fight, and keep swinging.” — Utah center Branden Carlson

“We are not giving up any time soon,” Carlson said after the Utes’ third-straight double-digit Pac-12 loss. “We are still in this thing. We are going to keep bringing the fight, and keep swinging.”

Have the Runnin’ Utes (12-7, 5-3) hit their wall, after starting Pac-12 play with five wins and looking a lot better than the team picked to finish 10th in the league?

Carlson doesn’t think so, noting that few teams travel to Los Angeles and get a split against UCLA and USC, let alone a sweep. And the losing streak started last week in Salt Lake City against an Oregon team that just walloped No. 9 Arizona 87-68 Saturday afternoon in Eugene.

Coach Craig Smith agreed.

“It has been a difficult stretch for us, to play those three games and three very difficult matchups for us,” Smith said. “UCLA is elite. And Oregon, you saw what they did today, beating Arizona. And that is a tough matchup for us.

“And then USC is good, and has been very good at home,” Smith continued. “They beat a very good Auburn team.”

The Utes have beat some good teams, too, but the 70-60 loss to Oregon on Jan. 7 and the beatdowns in Tinsel Town showed that they have a long ways to go to be considered among the Pac-12’s elite. Smith’s team just doesn’t have much margin for error, especially against the top 3-4 teams in the league.

Defensively, Utah is top-shelf — although that prowess didn’t travel to USC, which shot 53% in the first half, 47.5% for the game — and among the top squads in the country in field goal percentage defense.

Offensively, the Utes have issues, especially when shots aren’t falling from their guards and they are turning the ball over — a seasonlong problem that wasn’t culprit Saturday against USC. Poor shooting was the issue in both Los Angeles games.

Guards Marco Anthony (1 of 11), Lazar Stefanovic (6 of 19) and Gabe Madsen (4 of 23) were a combined 11 of 53 against UCLA and USC. Saturday, Carlson was 8 of 12 before teammates inexplicably stopped getting him touches after Madsen hit a 3-pointer to give the Utes a 41-39 lead with 17:48 remaining.

The trip showed the Utes need more scoring weapons, particularly when opponents take Carlson away. And the big guy needs to do a better job passing out of double teams.

“I think we have (capable scorers),” Carlson said after adding nine rebounds and three blocked shots to his 21 points. “We have multiple guys who can score and who can do things for us offensively. As a team, every single person on the team needs to take a step forward and get to that.”

When Rollie Worster (4 of 7, 12 points) hit a 3-pointer with 6:51 remaining to get the Utes within seven of the Trojans, Utah appeared poised to make a game of it. Then the Utes scored just two points the rest of the way, a Stefanovic layup with 1:28 remaining and the outcome no longer in doubt.

“We just gotta keep climbing and keep growing and keep getting better, and keep maturing,” Smith said. “Sometimes it is a race to maturity, and we gotta keep maturing and growing and keep growing as a team, and certainly individually that will help our team.”

Utah finished shooting 34.4%, which was its second-lowest shooting percentage game of the season; The Utes shot 32.7% in the 52-49 loss to Mississippi State on Nov. 23.

So the Utes dropped to 64 in the NET rankings, and will turn their attention to Thursday’s game at the Huntsman Center against red-hot Washington State (7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). Wazzu’s NET ranking moved to 72 after the Cougars (9-10, 4-4) won their third-straight game Saturday.

Washington State knocked off then-No. 5 Arizona 74-61 in Tucson to start the streak, then drubbed California 66-51 on Thursday and eked past Stanford 60-59 on Saturday. 

Smith said the Utes will lean on their veterans, character and maturity to get through this rough stretch.

“We need to be (tough-minded). It is big boy basketball. You are playing in the Pac-12 Conference, and it is one of the best leagues in the country. We have some thoroughbreds in this league, meaning thoroughbred teams,” he said. “It is difficult. When you play two games in three days on the road, it is tough.

“It is tough to win on the road no matter who you play, but especially this one,” he continued. “This is a difficult, difficult road trip, and I think we will grow. I do.”

On top of the Pac-12 standings 10 days ago, Utah is now in fourth place, a half-game ahead of No. 9 Arizona and Oregon. Staying in fourth and earning a bye to the quarterfinals in the Pac-12 tournament will take a monumental effort.

“I believe in our character. I have said all along: We have character off the floor. We have basketball character. These guys have competitiveness to them. So we are going to find out soon enough,” Smith said. “I don’t know that we are going to win every game, but we have to certainly work hard to be the best that we can be and see where this thing goes.”

Runnin’ Utes on the air

Washington State (9-10, 4-4) at Utah (12-7, 5-3)

Thursday, 7 p.m. MST

At Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700