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Analysis: Runnin’ Utes might have kissed their Big Dance hopes goodbye with puzzling 78-72 home loss to Stanford

Utah falls behind by 17 points in the second half, then sees its furious comeback attempt fall short

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Utah Utes guard Rollie Worster (wearing white) tries to shoot past Stanford Cardinal forward Harrison Ingram (55)

Utah Utes guard Rollie Worster (25) tries to shoot past Stanford Cardinal forward Harrison Ingram (55) in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. Stanford won 78-72.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Even without his second-leading scorer on the floor, Utah basketball coach Craig Smith never saw this one coming.

But Thursday night’s 78-72 upset loss to the Stanford Cardinal for the Runnin’ Utes in front of an announced crowd of 7,318 at the Huntsman Center might just be remembered a lot longer than a couple of days.

“It is definitely not a step forward. Yeah, I would say it is as step back, but I know it is not something we can’t come back from.” — Utah senior center Branden Carlson.

It feels like this one is really going to hurt in March, when postseasons bids — be they the tickets to the Big Dance or the NIT — are handed out. With a NET ranking of 50 before the game and some decent momentum despite last week’s close loss at perennial nemesis Oregon, Utah was inching toward the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Now the Utes (15-9, 8-5) are far from it, after falling to a Cardinal team (10-12, 4-7) that has now won five straight but had a NET ranking of 120.

“It is definitely not a step forward,” acknowledged Utah senior center Branden Carlson after posting another solid, if unspectacular line of 17 points on 6 of 9 shooting, with seven rebounds. “Yeah, I would say it is as step back, but I know it is not something we can’t come back from.”

Up next is lowly Cal at 4 p.m. on Sunday, a game the Utes should easily win. Of course, that’s what many were saying before Stanford arrived to face Utah and one of its better crowds of the season for the 6 p.m. MST tipoff.

“Congrats to Stanford. They are playing great basketball,” said Utah coach Craig Smith. “They are playing well. They are a really talented team. I think they are a lot better than their record shows.

“And give them credit, man. They played with great force tonight, and it just felt like they capitalized on a lot of our mistakes that we had on the defensive end, which were plenty.”

On the other side of the scorer’s table were the Utes, who lacked focus and intensity from the opening tip, for whatever reason. Before the game it was announced that Gabe Madsen and his 11.7 scoring average would be out 4-6 weeks with a lower leg injury, and it appeared that caused the Utes to come out flat, although Lazar Stefanovic refused to use that as an excuse.

Stefanovic, starting in Madsen’s place, was the lone bright spot for the Utes, as others around him fired up ill-advised shots, especially late when the game was on the line. Stefanovic scored a career-high 26 points, but needed 22 shots to get there. He was 6 of 14 from 3-point range. The rest of the Utes were 6 of 20 from deep.

“I mean, I am happy with the way I played with a guy (Madsen) out,” Stefanovic said. “Someone had to step up, I guess. It obviously wasn’t enough.”

Spencer Jones led Stanford with 22 points on 8 of 12 shooting, while Michael Jones added 15 and was 3 of 5 from beyond the arc. The Cardinal were 7 of 10 from 3-point range in the first half and finished 10 of 18 against the No. 4 team in the country in field-goal percentage defense.

“We weren’t guarding,” said Carlson. “… I couldn’t tell you (why there was a lack of focus, particularly on defense). I think the guys were ready. We just didn’t come out strong and Stanford was biting at the bit to come out and play their best and we weren’t ready to play our best.”

The Utes were also without guard Bostyn Holt, who sustained a lower leg injury in practice this week. Stanford’s bench outscored Utah’s bench 20-6.

“Just the lack of urgency was astounding,” Smith said. “So, obviously we are very disappointed.”

Utah had a chance to make February memorable if it could hold serve during this three-game homestand. Now it has to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to survive without Madsen.

Stanford led 46-31 at halftime and 48-31 seconds into the second half before the Utes went on a 13-2 run to get back into it. The Utes cut the deficit to four on a Stefanovic jumper with 9 minutes, 18 seconds remaining and the crowd was finally at full-throat.

But five straight empty possessions followed, and Spencer Jones hit a triple with 6:18 left that felt like the dagger.

“We cut it to four and then we took a couple of shots where it was like, ‘what are we doing here?’ Smith said. “It was out of character and not the shots that we were looking for. So we gotta get better. Certainly, a disappointing loss.”

One that few saw coming, considering the Utes handled Stanford 71-66 in Palo Alto on Dec. 31 and was seemingly able to handle the Cardinal’s size. Stanford is one of the tallest teams in the country.

“I did not see this coming. I thought we had good practices. We really executed well. I thought we competed hard (in practice). I thought we had a good shootaround today.

“In the second half, we played with a lot more force. But certainly it looked to me like we just didn’t have our edge that it needs to be on either end of the floor.”