How seldom-used backup Mike Saunders’ perseverance paid off in close loss to No. 4 UCLA
Fifth-place Runnin’ Utes host third-place USC at 6 p.m. Saturday and will honor five players and a team manager on Senior Night at the Huntsman Center
After scoring a career-high 25 points in Utah’s 78-71 loss to No. 4 UCLA, Mike Saunders Jr. walked into the interview room late Thursday night, looked around a little bit, and broke the tension with a big smile on his face.
“I ain’t never been in here before,” quipped the 6-foot junior from Indianapolis, who prepped his senior year down the road at Wasatch Academy before playing his first two seasons of college basketball at Cincinnati.
Appearances in the interview room are usually reserved for head coach Craig Smith, and the players who stand out in each game, explaining why Saunders had never been in the smallish space up the north the tunnel at the Huntsman Center.
“Whenever my number is called, I am always ready. It doesn’t matter what my situation is. I always look at other people, like NBA players, and there are a lot of pros that sit there, and they show up every day and be professionals. So that’s what I did each and every day, and it paid off.” — Utah guard Mike Saunders
Why Saunders hasn’t played enough, or done enough, until Thursday’s breakout performance to warrant admission into the room has been the subject of many a debate among ardent University of Utah basketball fans this season, a season that started with the point guard playing 23, 11, 15 and 18 minutes in the Utes’ first four games, then pretty much disappearing in late November.
He scored 26 points combined in those games against LIU, Cal State Bakersfield, Idaho State and Sam Houston, then just 15 points total in the next 24 contests — appearing in only 11 of them — as Utah State transfer Rollie Worster and sophomore Lazar Stefanovic gobbled up the bulk of the point guard minutes.
Suffice it to say that Saunders will play more going forward, with Worster in a walking boot on his left foot due to an ankle sprain suffered in the disheartening 67-59 loss to Arizona State last week coupled with the way Saunders played in the second half against the talented Bruins.
Saunders was 7 of 10 for 19 points in the final 20 minutes, bringing the Utes back from a 16-point deficit with his ability to both get to the rim and hit 3-pointers. He was 3 of 4 from deep, and also had three rebounds, two assists and two turnovers.
“Yeah, I would anticipate that, certainly,” Smith said after being asked if Saunders would play a similar amount in Saturday’s Senior Night showdown with USC (20-8, 12-5), despite the fact that the Trojans have big guards such as 6-3 Boogie Ellis, 6-9 Drew Peterson and 6-7 Tre White.
Tipoff is at 6 p.m. and the game will be televised by ESPNU.
Of course, on Tuesday, Smith frankly said that Saunders was not playing a lot because he needs to get better and produce more when he is on the court.
Talk about answering the critics.
“Whenever my number is called, I am always ready,” Saunders said, recounting a similar moment during his freshman season at Cincy in which he came off the bench on Senior Night and scored a season-high 19 points against Memphis. “It doesn’t matter what my situation is. I always look at other people, like NBA players, and there are a lot of pros that sit there, and they show up every day and be professionals. So that’s what I did each and every day, and it paid off.”
Smith said after Worster went down, he had “conversations” with Saunders and other reserves such as Jaxon Brenchley, Luka Tarlac and first-time starter Wilguens Exacte about being ready to step up.
Saunders was ready, despite a slow start defensively in the first half when he looked lost, at times.
“When we found out Rollie was going to be out — that’s a big loss — we knew guys needed to step up and I knew I especially needed to step up, so yeah,” Saunders said.
In reality, another lengthy appearance from Saunders may have to wait until next week at Colorado, because of USC’s aforementioned length in the front court. And Smith and his staff have tended to err on the side of getting their best defensive players on the floor.
“I mean, there were some things tonight certainly that (Saunders) has gotta do better. But certainly he did some really good things too. Certainly he sparked us on the offensive end,” Smith said. “We got down and he brought a different level of pace to our game. You could see it. You could feel it, certainly. And then he saw that first 3 go in, in the second half, specifically, and now you start creating some momentum and you feel the crowd, and just that energy.”
Some Senior Night intrigue
Barring a home game in the NIT, Utah will be playing its final home game of the 2022-23 season Saturday when USC visits the Huntsman Center, part of a doubleheader with the Utah women’s Pac-12 championship showdown against No. 3 Stanford (noon, Pac-12 Networks).
As the Deseret News reported last Tuesday, the Runnin’ Utes will honor five players who are listed as seniors on the roster, along with outgoing team manager Harrison Van Dyke.
The players are Branden Carlson, Bostyn Holt, Jaxon Brenchley, Marco Anthony and Eli Ballstaedt, a walk-on.
Carlson, Holt, Brenchley are scholarship players who have eligibility remaining next year, if they want it. But Smith said Tuesday nothing has been finalized.
Runnin’ Utes on the air
USC (20-8, 12-5)
at Utah (17-12, 10-8)
Saturday, 6 p.m. MST
At Jon M. Huntsman Center
Radio: ESPN 700
“Those conversations will happen after the year (ends) with the other four guys,” Smith said, including Ballstaedt in the group and noting that Anthony has exhausted his eligibility.
The seniors will be honored pregame on the floor starting at the 20-minute mark. Utah is encouraging fans to arrive early for the ceremony.
The Trojans pounded Colorado 84-65 Thursday in Boulder and have won three straight games to move into sole possession of third place in the Pac-12 standings, a game behind Arizona and three behind league-leading UCLA. USC is No. 49 in the NET rankings, while Utah is No. 59.