What if?

That was the prevailing thought thousands of University of Utah basketball fans left the Huntsman Center with late Thursday night after their shorthanded Utes threw a mighty scare into No. 4 UCLA in a 78-71 loss in front of an announced crowd of 8,497.

They raised the curtains at the 50-plus year old building, although only a few fans took advantage of the chance to get in for a few dollars, then raised some expectations for Utah’s finish after the Utes fell to 17-12 overall and 10-8 in Pac-12 play.

“I knew when my time came, I would go out there and play my game. And you know, we didn’t come on the right side of the winning column, so I am not really happy about it. But it was good to finally get an opportunity, for sure.” — Utah point guard Mike Saunders

UCLA improved to 24-4 and 15-2 in sweeping the Utes on the season, but left Salt Lake City knowing it was a bit fortunate to escape Utah’s spirited upset bid. The Bruins led by 16 midway through the second half before Utah cut the deficit to three with about five minutes left.

Then Jaime Jaquez, a Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate along with Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis, simply took over and willed the visitors to the win. Jaquez finished with 23 points on 10 of 15 shooting, and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.

“Jaquez, he was unbelievable tonight,” Utes coach Craig Smith said.

And so was Utah backup point guard Mike Saunders. Yes, you read that right. The Cincinnati transfer who had appeared in only 15 games, and was averaging around three minutes a game when he did get off the bench, simply had a career night and almost carried the Utes to what would have been one of their more improbable wins in program history.

Filling in for injured point guard Rollie Worster and two-guard Gabe Madsen, Saunders came off the bench and had a career-high 25 points on 10 of 17 shooting, making an array of shots that must have had UCLA coaches puzzled over the identity of No. 2 on the Utes’ roster.

The guy who Smith had said Tuesday “has just got to get better” to get more playing time was spectacular, particularly in the second half when Utah made the comeback.

“Honestly, it felt amazing, and it was crazy because I envisioned it,” Saunders said. “When I was sitting on the bench watching my teammates, I was just waiting for my opportunity.”

Opportunity knocked Thursday night for the 9 p.m. tipoff, especially after starter Wil Exacte was ineffective early, and Saunders delivered on the promise he arrived with six months ago.

“I knew when my time came, I would go out there and play my game,” Saunders said. “And you know, we didn’t come on the right side of the winning column, so I am not really happy about it. But it was good to finally get an opportunity, for sure.”

Saunders is right. The Utes didn’t win, but then again, few expected them to — with or without Madsen and Worster — who probably won’t be able to play Saturday against USC, either.

“Heck of an effort,” Smith acknowledged. “We are not into moral victories, but man, I am just really proud of how we played tonight.”

Still, there were a lot of what ifs?

What if Saunders had been used more earlier in the Pac-12 season? Would the Utes be in fifth in the league standings and seemingly headed to the NIT? 

“Man, we gave ourselves a chance,” Smith said. “… I want to thank our fans. I thought it was electric in there tonight. They were willing our guys and just trying to will us to the finish line, and you could feel it.”

What if, after Marco Anthony’s bucket cut the big UCLA lead to 62-59 with five minutes left, the Utes had corralled a rebound before Jaylen Clark’s field goal on a third chance attempt ended a nearly six-minute field goal drought?

“Credit to our guys,” Smith said. “They got it to a 16-point lead and our guys just showed a ton of resiliency and just kept on competing and fighting and stayed together.”

What if star center Branden Carlson — who missed the 68-49 loss at UCLA on Jan. 12 with a stomach bug — had played one of his usual solid games, instead of one of his worst?

The 7-footer was 4 of 14 from the field, including 1 of 6 from 3-point range, and finished with 14 points, but just two rebounds. He did have four assists, but three turnovers.

“It has been awhile since I played these guys, so I wanted to come out and just get going however I could and help this team,” Carlson said. “It just wasn’t enough on my part tonight. … Obviously I haven’t shot the ball as well as I want, but that is going to change soon.”

There were other massive breakdowns, particularly in the first half. Twice Carlson was beat down the floor by freshman Adem Bona for dunks in the first half. 

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Against one of the country’s elite defenses, at least in terms of field goal percentage defense, UCLA set the tone early by going 4 of 5 from deep in the first half. The Bruins shot 61% in the first 20 minutes.

Utah sags offensively without Worster and Madsen, but defensively it should be better with more athletic guys on the floor such as Saunders, Exacte and Keba Keita.

“We had a lot of breakdowns tonight,” Smith acknowledged.

In fairness, Anthony was doing a reasonable job on Jaquez in the first 30 minutes, but then the All-America candidate simply got it going late.

His 3-pointer with about a minute left gave the Bruins a 74-64 lead and was “the nail in the coffin,” Smith said. 

And the Utes were a bit selfish in the first half, assisting on only two of their 11 baskets. That improved in the second half as Smith went to the two-man game with Saunders and Carlson, with some success.

“Mike had an amazing game,” Carlson said.

Leaving a lot of people amazed that he hasn’t been given the opportunity until now.