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Utah’s stifling defense in second half carries Utes to (likely) Quad 1 win over Saint Mary’s

The Runnin’ Utes picked up a big road win by locking down the home team

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Utah’s Gabe Madsen drives against St. Mary’s Aidan Mahaney during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Moraga, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

Utah’s Gabe Madsen drives against St. Mary’s Aidan Mahaney during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Moraga, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via AP

The University of Utah picked up a critical win in its lone true road game in nonconference play, one that could end up being a Quad 1 victory.

After an eight-day layoff, the Runnin’ Utes built a big second-half lead before weathering a late push in beating Saint Mary’s 78-71 at University Credit Union Pavilion in Moraga, California, on Monday night.

“We showed a lot of toughness and a lot of grit,” Utah third-year coach Craig Smith said.

The victory also had some historical significance — it was Utah’s first true road win in nonconference action since the Runnin’ Utes opened the 2019-20 season with a 79-74 victory at Nevada.

The biggest factor

The Runnin’ Utes put the clamps down on Saint Mary’s defensively in the second half, holding the Gaels to 34.5% shooting from the field after the break and 41.7% on the night.

After the teams went into the half tied at 38-38, Saint Mary’s made just 1 of its first 11 shots in the second half in falling behind 50-42.

While the Utes themselves shot 33.3% in the second half (Utah made just three field goals in the final 12 minutes) and relied heavily on solid free-throw shooting to build an insurmountable lead, that set the tempo as Utah led by as many as 15 points in the second half.

Saint Mary’s made it interesting by cutting the Utah lead to 72-68 in the final minute after going on a quick 11-2 run, but the Utes wrapped up the win at the free-throw line.

Prior to the Gaels making 4 of 6 field goals in the final two minutes, Utah had held the home team to 26.1% shooting in the second half.

“For the most part, we were able to keep them to one shot and out in the second half,” Smith said. “That was big, because they’re the No. 7 team in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. That’s a big strength of theirs.”

Other key takeaways

Stars of the night: While two-time All-Pac 12 performer Branden Carlson had a quiet night by his standards (seven points and seven rebounds), Utah’s starting guard trio led the way.

Gabe Madsen contributed in a variety of ways for Utah, scoring 17 points. He shot 6 of 11 and made two 3-pointers while adding three rebounds, an assist and a steal.

Rollie Worster (17 points, eight rebounds, one assist) and Cole Bajema (14 points) also scored in double-figures.

Aidan Mahaney scored 14 of his 22 points in the first half, and he added five assists for Saint Mary’s.

Keba Keita shines in return: Keita, one of the Utes’ top off-the-bench players, returned to action after missing two games with an undisclosed injury. He had four points, six rebounds (two on the offensive end), an assist, one blocked shot and a steal in 14 minutes.

He made his biggest impact in the second half, making hustle plays on both ends of the floor.

“Keba just gave us a big-time spark, a lot of energy,” Smith said.

Free-throw shooting was key: Utah got into the bonus with more than eight minutes left in the game.

At one point when the Utes were struggling to hit shots from the field, Utah scored 12 straight from the free-throw line to build a 62-52 lead with just over six minutes to play.

Utah finished the night shooting 23 of 31 from the free-throw line (including 21 of 28 in the second half), while Saint Mary’s made 12 of 18.

Of the Utes’ 40 second-half points, more than half (21) came from the free-throw line.

“For us to be able to close it out that way, by getting fouled, that’s been an emphasis of ours, and taking care of the ball. That was big for our guys,” Smith said.

3-point shooting not much of a factor for Utes: There was a stretch in the first half where six straight field goals from the Runnin’ Utes were 3-pointers. Those accounted for all but one of Utah’s 3-pointers in the game.

Saint Mary’s hit five 3-pointers in the first half and made nine in the game, making three 3-pointers in the game’s final two minutes to make it interesting late.

Utah schools break Gaels’ home-court advantage: Saint Mary’s doesn’t often lose at home — the Gaels lost just five home games over the past three seasons, and that included a stretch where Saints Mary’s won 23 straight at home.

The loss to Utah was the second already this season for the Gaels at home — the other one came against a Utah school, as Weber State beat Saint Mary’s 61-57 in Moraga earlier this year.

The Gaels dropped to 3-4 on the young season with the loss.

“This is a really difficult place to play, it’s a very difficult place to win,” Smith said.

Highlights

What’s next?

The Utes (4-2) will be back in Salt Lake City for their next game.

Utah, though, won’t be at the Huntsman Center — instead, the Runnin’ Utes will play Hawaii at the Delta Center on Thursday (7 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network).

The Rainbow Warriors are 5-0 on the season and are coming off a pair of victories at the Acrisure Invitational — Hawaii beat UT Rio Grande Valley and San Diego by an average of 15 points to claim the tournament title.