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Branden Carlson’s career night carries Utah past Wake Forest, setting up game against No. 6 Houston

Carlson scored a career-high 31 points as the Runnin’ Utes rallied from down 12 points to win at the Charleston Classic

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Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) dunks the ball during a men’s basketball game against the Eastern Washington Eagles at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. Utah won 101-66.

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) dunks the ball during a men’s basketball game against the Eastern Washington Eagles at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. Utah won 101-66.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The University of Utah rode a career high from its star player to beat Wake Forest 77-70 on Thursday night during the opening day of the Charleston Classic at TD Arena.

As a reward, the Runnin’ Utes will get their shot against one of the nation’s top teams — No. 6 Houston — in the tournament’s semifinals.

“They’re elite in every facet,” Utah coach Craig Smith said of the Cougars.

The biggest factor

Branden Carlson had himself a night, as the fifth-year senior led a spirited comeback effort for the Runnin’ Utes. Despite trailing by as many as 12 points in the second half and 41-31 at halftime, Utah rallied behind its 7-foot center.

Carlson finished the night with a career-high 31 points on 12 of 20 shooting, while adding four rebounds, five blocks, one assist and a steal.

He also hit four 3-pointers, including one in the final minute that gave Utah a seven-point lead.

“BC just had a great look to him,” Smith said. “(He made) some monster plays down the stretch for us. That’s what two-time all-league guys do.”

Carlson scored 20 points after halftime, many of those at critical junctures.

The Runnin’ Utes went on an 11-0 second-half run to take the lead for good, and Carlson hit a 3-pointer and followed that with a slam dunk to punctuate the run and give Utah a 65-60 lead.

Utah never trailed again after that stretch.

“He scored well, but he did everything else, too,” senior point guard Rollie Worster — who had nine points, nine assists and a steal — said of Carlson. “He rebounded, he defended. ... He’s gotten a lot better guarding outside on the perimeter.

“He’s just our glue guy, and he hit some huge shots tonight.”

Minutes earlier, he also had three blocks during a stretch in the second half when Utah trimmed its deficit from 10 points down to one at 50-49.

Carlson’s lone assist also came in a crucial moment, as he hit fellow big man Lawson Lovering for a dunk to put the Runnin’ Utes up 72-68 with a minute and a half to play.

The team leader capped the night with a 3-pointer with 41 seconds remaining and a dunk for the game’s final score.

“We came out timid, we just weren’t ready to go on a physicality level. They definitely out-toughed us,” Carlson said of the first half.

“Second half, we had all the faith in each other as a team that we could come back and win this — just trusting in each other and keeping the ball moving and picking up our physicality and playing with an aggressive mindset.”

Other key takeaways

Defense kicks up in the second half: Utah held Wake Forest to 40% shooting in the second half after giving up 53.3% shooting in the first half. More importantly, after the Demon Deacons hit seven 3-pointers in the first half, they made just three in the second half.

Wake Forest’s leading scorer, Cameron Hildreth, had 14 points at halftime but was scoreless in the final 20 minutes. Big man Andrew Carr, who got into foul trouble in the second half, had 13 points, but just four after halftime.

Switching things up defensively paid off for Utah in the second half.

“Credit to Wake Forest — they’re a really good team, especially offensively and they get downhill,” Worster said. “We did a great job, and Coach Smith, of switching up the pace of the game up from zone to man, going back and forth, and I think that really helped us (defensively). Just staying down and guarding the ball, moving our feet was big for us.”

Utes minimize second-half mistakes: After Utah turned the ball over nine times in the first half and those takeaways led to 14 Wake Forest points, the Utes had just two turnovers after halftime.

That helped Utah go on a couple big runs — the aforementioned 11-0 spurt to take the lead, and a 15-4 run early in the second half to turn around what had been a 12-point deficit.

That eventually helped the Runnin’ Utes tie the game up with just under seven minutes to play.

“Once we kind of tied it up, we just felt like we were going to win this game,” Smith said.

3-pointers catch on: The Utes hit 6 of 13 3-pointers in the second half to help them catch up and take over the game.

Carlson hit three of those second-half 3-pointers for the Runnin’ Utes, while Cole Bajema — who had 11 points — made a pair and Gabe Madsen added one.

Bajema’s, in particular, came at key moments — his first pulled Utah within 60-57 with under eight minutes to play, and his second (with 4:21 left) extended the Utes’ lead back out to five at 68-63 after a Wake Forest 3-pointer moments before.

The highlights

What’s next?

Now comes a big opportunity, as the Runnin’ Utes (3-0) will take on top 10 Houston in the Charleston Classic semifinals.

The Cougars, who entered the day at No. 2 in the KenPom ratings, held Towson to 25% shooting in the first half en route to a 65-49 win in the quarterfinals.

Utah and Houston will play Friday at 2:30 p.m. MST in the second semifinal of the day. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

“We know it’s going to be a battle and we’re going to have to come out ready to go,” Carlson said of Houston, who leads the nation in scoring defense — the Cougars have given up an average of 44.5 points through four games.

“... As long as we can survive the first 5-8 minutes, I think that’s what’s going to really help to keep the momentum of the game going.”

Charleston Classic schedule

All times Mountain Standard Time


  • Game 1: St. John’s 53, North Texas 52.
  • Game 2: Dayton 70, LSU 67.
  • Game 3: Houston 65, Towson 49.
  • Game 4: Utah 77, Wake Forest 70.


  • Consolation 1: North Texas vs. LSU, 9:30 a.m. (ESPNU).
  • Semifinal 1: St. John’s vs. Dayton, noon (ESPN2).
  • Semifinal 2: Houston vs. Utah, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN2).
  • Consolation 2: Towson vs. Wake Forest, 5 p.m. (ESPNU).


  • 7th-place game: North Texas-LSU loser vs. Towson-Wake Forest loser, 10:30 a.m. (ESPN+).
  • 5th-place game: North Texas-LSU winner vs. Towson-Wake Forest winner, 1 or 3:30 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2).
  • 3rd-place game: St. John’s-Dayton loser vs. Houston-Utah loser, 1 or 3:30 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2).
  • Championship game: St. John’s-Dayton winner vs. Houston-Utah winner, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN).