If we’ve learned anything about the Runnin’ Utes through this 2022-23 basketball season, it is that they have the ability and talent, and defensive prowess, to compete with any team on their schedule.

Their 15-point win over then-No. 4 Arizona back on Dec. 1 proved that.

But we also have found out that their margin for error is relatively slim, due to the lack of a second big offensive threat to complement all-Pac-12 center Branden Carlson, their penchant for turning the ball over too much, and not a lot of depth — exacerbated when second-leading scorer Gabe Madsen sustained a high ankle sprain against Oregon on Jan. 28 that will probably keep him out until March, at the earliest.

“Obviously, turnovers were a monster key to the game. Their best offense is their transition game, and they create turnovers with their defense. So credit to them. We just had some very untimely ones.” — Utah coach Craig Smith

In Saturday afternoon’s 67-59 loss at so-so Arizona State, all those weaknesses were exposed, particularly after junior point guard Rollie Worster — the heart-and-soul of the team, along with Carlson, Lazar Stefanovic and Marco Anthony — rolled his left ankle less than four minutes into the second half, limped off the court, and never returned.

Utah, now 17-11 overall and 10-7 in Pac-12 play, battled gamely without Worster and Madsen and even led 57-55 with 3:09 remaining when freshman Wil Exacte followed a Carlson miss with a rebound dunk. But Arizona State, which was 1 of 13 from 3-point range up to that point, answered with back-to-back 3-pointers by the Cambridge brothers — Desmond Jr. and Devan — and made the bigger plays down the stretch to get the hard-fought win.

The victory moved ASU (19-9, 10-7) into a tie for fourth place in the Pac-12 standings with the Utes, but the Sun Devils will get the all-important No. 4 seed for the conference tournament (and first-round bye) if they remain tied at the end of the regular season because of head-to-head tiebreaker rules.

It was the first and only game between the Utes and Sun Devils this season; Washington is the only other Pac-12 team Utah plays only once.

The loss also hurt for the Utes because it was an opportunity for a Quad 1 win as they try to keep their dwindling NCAA Tournament at-large bid hopes alive. Those are now on life-support, as Utah’s NET ranking tumbled from 55 to 59 on Sunday. 

“It was a heckuva college basketball game,” said Utah coach Craig Smith. “I thought it had a little bit of everything. It had some power, it had some finesse, it had some great defense at times and some good offense. And credit to them, they made the plays down the stretch.”

Indeed, ASU made 11 of its last 15 shots, then guards DJ Horne and Frankie Collins sealed it with free throws.

Where did it get away from the Utes?

After Exacte’s incredibly athletic dunk, the Utes got the ball back with a chance to make it a two-possession game. But the freshman missed a 3-pointer — he had made two triples earlier in the game — and after Desmond Cambridge’s 3-pointer, Stefanovic’s bad pass was picked off by Collins for Utah’s 17th turnover.

The Utes missed their last five shots after Stefanovic’s step-back jumper with 1:16 left had cut the deficit to 60-59.

“I thought we wore down,” Smith said in his postgame news conference. “Losing Worster certainly hurt. … But really proud of our guys. I thought we competed hard. Our guys were in a position they haven’t seen a lot in terms of losing Worster.”

Later, while speaking to ESPN 700 radio, Smith refused to use the loss of Worster as an excuse, saying the Utes are to the point of the season where they shouldn’t be making the bad decisions that result in turnovers. The Sun Devils scored 20 points off Utah’s turnovers.

Anthony, a sixth-year senior, had 12 points on 5 of 11 shooting, but committed four of those turnovers. Keba Keita and Ben Carlson had three apiece.

“Obviously, turnovers were a monster key to the game,” Smith said. “Their best offense is their transition game, and they create turnovers with their defense. So credit to them. We just had some very untimely ones.”

Arizona State shot 34.4% in the first half and 54.8% in the second half, as Keita got in foul trouble and Utah lost one of its top rim protectors. Forward Warren Washington had 18 points, double his season average, on 7 of 9 shooting for ASU.

“I thought Keba was very good in his minutes, and then he gets the fourth foul diving on the floor, and ties up the ball. Whatever,” Smith said. “That’s a whole ‘nother deal. So we overextended some guys, and it gets tough. But we are going to go with the guys who give us the best chance to win the game.”

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So the Utes now turn their attention to the visits from the Los Angeles schools this week, and of course, Worster’s condition.

“We will see what the prognosis is with Rollie. It is another lower leg injury, and that hurt, no doubt,” Smith told the radio station. “It just has a compound effect when Madsen is out, too. Those are two of our starters. I thought Wil did some really good things tonight. I thought Bostyn (Holt) was solid, once he kinda settled in.”

Junior guard Mike Saunders, the 6-foot transfer from Cincinnati, recorded a did-not-play (DNP) for the 13th time this season, as Smith went with Exacte, Holt and even freshman Luka Tarlac after Worster went down. Saunders’ lack of playing time remains one of the season’s big mysteries.


Runnin’ Utes on the air

UCLA (23-4, 14-2) at Utah (17-11, 10-7)

Thursday, 9 p.m. MST

At Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: ESPN 700