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Runnin’ Utes weather a rally before holding off Southern Utah

The visiting T-Birds trimmed down a 17-point lead before Utah held on for the two-point win

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Utah center Keba Keita (13) dunks the ball during the Runnin’ Utes 88-86 win over Southern Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

Utah center Keba Keita (13) dunks the ball during the Runnin’ Utes 88-86 win over Southern Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

Hunter Dyke/Utah Athletics

In the Utah men’s basketball team’s first home game in nearly a month, the Runnin’ Utes held on to beat in-state opponent Southern Utah 88-86 despite getting a second-half scare at the Huntsman Center on Tuesday night.

It was just the 12th meeting between the two in-state schools, with Utah picking up its 10th win in the series.

The biggest factor

Southern Utah used a pair of large runs to make this one a game after Utah built double-digit leads in both halves in a contest that featured 42 fouls called, which played a hand in disrupting the rhythm of the game.

The T-Birds trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half before trimming that to a four-point deficit at 44-40 in the final minute of the first half. A Keba Keita and-1 pushed it backed to a seven-point edge at halftime.

Utah quickly pushed the lead back to 17 points in the first four minutes of the second half, thanks to a 10-2 run sparked by back-to-back 3-pointers from Gabe Madsen and Ben Carlson.

The T-Birds again, though, trimmed a large Utah lead down to a two-possession game midway through the second half.

“I love how we started the second half. I thought we got a good jump on them,” Utah coach Craig Smith said. “And they kept fighting. Give them a lot of credit. They had some guys play outstanding basketball.”

This time, Southern Utah went on a 15-2 run, and the T-Birds eventually whittled the Utah lead down to three points on a 3-pointer from Braden Housley near midcourt with 7:17 to play.

SUU hit 12 of 26 3-pointers, compared to 5 of 17 for Utah. Dominique Ford’s 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining made it 86-83, but Madsen answered with a pair of free throws to seal the win.

Even then, Ford hit one final 3 at the buzzer to make it a two-point Utes win.

“We’ve got to guard better, got to be more disciplined and tougher. Got to be able to guard consistently — that’s how you win at a high, high level,” Smith said, after SUU shot 50% for the game and 53.6% in the second half.

Other key takeaways

Stars of the night: Keita scored a career-high 23 points and added eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals, while Ben Carlson had a double-double with a career-high 15 points and 10 rebounds.

“The game is slowing down definitely for me,” Keita said after scoring in double-digits for the fourth time this season — he didn’t do that a single time as a freshman last year. “I’m able to see some things now that I didn’t last year.”

Madsen added 19 points, while Rollie Worster had a double-double with 12 points and 11 assists.

Housley, who prepped at Skyridge High, scored 23 points and added five assists and two steals to pace Southern Utah. Power forward Parsa Fallah scored 20 points on 9 of 15 shooting.

No Branden Carlson: Utah fifth-year center Branden Carlson missed the Southern Utah game with what Utes radio voice Bill Riley called a “nagging injury.” The Utes started Ben Carlson in his place.

Regarding Branden Carlson’s availability for Saturday’s game against BYU, Smith said, “I don’t know. It’s just too early to tell.”

Ben Carlson acquitted himself well in his first start of the season. In addition to his final stat line detailed above, he had four points, two rebounds, one steal, one assist and a blocked shot in the game’s first four minutes. He finished the first half with eight points on 4 of 5 shooting.

“Ben, he’s just been really confident this year,” Madsen said. “You can just tell he’s feeling good and feeling confident.”

Points in the paint: The Runnin’ Utes are the nation’s second-tallest team, while SUU’s tallest player is 6-foot-9. Keita, in particular, took advantage of the size and athleticism disparity, as Utah owned a 56-30 edge in points in the paint.

“He’s had great production in the last three games since he’s been back (from missing two games to injury), and tonight certainly,” Smith said of Keita, who made 11 of 12 field goals. “... He just had a lot of point-blank opportunities where nobody was around him.”

The Runnin’ Utes took the majority of their shots inside the 3-point line and finished shooting 54% from the floor — that included shooting 60% in the first half.

Rebounds: Despite the size advantage, Utah only held a 35-31 rebounding edge and 10-8 on the offensive glass. SUU held a 13-12 advantage in second-chance points.

Free throws and fouls: After Utah made 23 of 31 free throws in a win over Saint Mary’s and 14 of 17 in beating Hawaii, the Utes made 15 of 21 from the free-throw line in Tuesday’s victory, though they hit just 3 of 5 in the first half.

The T-Birds were 14 of 19 from the line on the night.

After both teams were whistled for eight fouls in the first half, there were 23 called in the second half — 11 on Utah, and 12 on SUU.

“It definitely affects the game when there’s a lot of fouls. It slows it down and the rhythm of the game was just broken up,” Madsen said. “No excuses obviously about that, but you could definitely feel that.”

Highlights

What’s next?

Utah (6-2) will stay at home through the remainder of December — the game against SUU was the first of six straight contests at the Huntsman Center for the Runnin’ Utes.

Up next is a matchup against in-state rival and 14th-ranked BYU (8-0) on Saturday.

The Cougars beat Evansville 96-55 on Tuesday night.

“We’re going to have to play a lot better. We’ve got a really good team coming in here on Saturday,” Smith said.

Utah will play a third straight in-state opponent when it hosts Utah Valley on Dec. 16.