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How the Runnin’ Utes rolled past overmatched Washington on Alumni Night

Branden Carlson scores 25 points and Rollie Worster flirts with a triple-double as Utes improve to 7-3 in Pac-12 play

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Utah guard Gabe Madsen celebrates after scoring during a NCAA college basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023.

Utah guard Gabe Madsen celebrates after scoring during a NCAA college basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

The Utah Runnin’ Utes treated the 75 or so former players who attended Alumni Night to one of their best performances of the Craig Smith era on Saturday.

Branden Carlson continued the best stretch of games of his four-year career with 25 points and eight rebounds, and Rollie Worster nearly had a triple-double as the Utes led wire-to-wire for the second-straight game and walloped Washington 86-61 in convincing fashion in front of an announced crowd of 7,815 at the Huntsman Center.

“We just played so tough. Like, we were so tough physically, mentally, and we executed. We had a great week. Our guys clearly got better this week.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

“We played really well. It was a great week for the Runnin’ Utes men’s basketball program in every way,” Utah head coach Craig Smith told ESPN 700 radio.

“I want to thank all the former players that paved the way for these guys, all the legendary guys. It means a lot on a personal level to see all these guys come back and support our program.”

The Utes, picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 when the season began, finished the first half of the conference season at 7-3, 14-7 overall. They enter the second half of the league schedule in second place, behind only UCLA (8-1), which lost 58-52 at Arizona on Saturday afternoon.

Washington, which had won three straight games and was coming off a big 75-72 road win at Colorado, fell to 4-6 and 12-9.

“We just played so tough,” Smith said. “Like, we were so tough physically, mentally, and we executed. We had a great week. Our guys clearly got better this week.”

In the only scheduled meeting of the year with the Utes, the Huskies hardly had a chance as Utah put together a brilliant effort on both ends of the court. It was similar to Smith’s other signature win — that 81-66 conquest of Arizona back on Dec. 1 — albeit against a less-talented opponent.

“When we play at this level, and play this way for each other, great things are going to happen for us,” Carlson said.

The Huskies ended Utah’s season last year in the Pac-12 tournament, winning 82-70 in Las Vegas, but on this night the zone-loving Huskies had no answers for Carlson, Worster and company.

Two nights after registering a career-high 28 points in the blowout of Washington State, Carlson went 10 of 17 from the field in 33 minutes, and also had three blocks and three steals.

Carlson became the first Ute to score 25 or more points in consecutive games since Andrew Bogut in 2004-05.

“I just think it is a bunch of the guys, we are not over-dribbling as much as we were,” Carlson said of the improved offensive execution. “A lot of times, just one extra pass will lead to an open bucket.”

Worster came within a rebound of a triple-double, posting 11 points, 10 assists and nine boards. The junior from Montana had a shot at a 10th rebound in the final minute, but it went to Marco Anthony instead, giving Anthony a double-double.

Anthony, a fifth-year player, also had 13 points and three assists as the Utes recorded 20 assists for the second straight game.

Carlson told ESPN 700 that teammates were giving Anthony a pretty good ribbing in the locker room for costing Worster a triple-double.

“Oh, he’s not hearing the end of it,” Carlson said.

Worster played 37 minutes and committed just one turnover.

“Rollie was outstanding,” Smith said. “One turnover the entire weekend. … He just made a lot of the right plays.”

Utah won the rebounding battle 48-30 and got 25 second-chance points.

The positives kept flowing for the Utes, who had lost three straight before this week’s homestand.

Utes guard Gabe Madsen rediscovered his shooting stroke after a couple of rough outings and finished with 17 points on 7 of 13 shooting. Defensively, the Utes made few mistakes for the second-straight night as well. Kentucky transfer Keion Brooks Jr. led the Huskies with 17 points, but needed 19 shots to get there. Cole Bajema added 13.

Washington shot 35% from the field and 31% from 3-point range.

About the only negative of the night came in the first half when freshman center Keba Keita sustained a right foot injury. Keita left the court on his own power and was wearing a protective boot on his right foot after the game.

Smith did not have an immediate update on Keita’s condition, but said he believes the center, who did not score in the game, should be ready for next week’s games at Oregon State and Oregon.

Speaking of which, the Oregon game next Saturday in Eugene not only represents a chance for the Utes to get some revenge for the 70-60 loss in Salt Lake City two weeks ago, but a win could give them a nice bump in the NET rankings and perhaps put them back into the NCAA Tournament discussion.