Two weeks ago, it seemed as if the Runnin’ Utes had figured out how to move forward without the services of second-leading scorer Gabe Madsen, who suffered a high ankle sprain early in the 68-56 loss at Oregon on Jan. 28.

After falling 78-72 to mercurial Stanford to open February, a loss that could cost them a No. 4 seed and first-round bye in next week’s Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, the Utes routed Cal and Colorado at the Huntsman Center.

“We want to go to Boulder, take care of business there, and get our mojo back. … We just gotta stay in the moment. Everything is still in front of us. I feel like our mojo has been lost a little bit. But it is always the next man up mentality for us, and we just gotta find it.” — Utah forward Marco Anthony

Lazar Stefanovic was moving seamlessly into a starting role, fellow guard Rollie Worster was shouldering more of the scoring load, and promising freshmen Wilguens Exacte and Keba Keita were seemingly hitting their stride.

Then Worster went down with a left ankle sprain in the 67-59 loss at Arizona State on Feb. 18, and Utes simply have not been able to overcome the second major setback of the season.

Coach Craig Smith’s shorthanded squad just hasn’t been able to make the plays necessary to win in crunch time, fading late in the losses to ASU, No. 4 UCLA and USC.

“We just couldn’t quite get over the hump, and that’s the story of the weekend,” Smith said after Saturday’s 62-49 loss to USC, a loss that dropped the Utes into a tie for sixth place in the league standings with one regular-season game remaining on the docket — Saturday’s showdown with ninth-place Colorado (15-14, 7-11) in Boulder.

Smith, who paused several times to hold back his emotions after the fourth-straight loss, on Senior Night, in the postgame news conference said still doesn’t know when the two starting guards will return, but he didn’t sound optimistic.

Furthermore, the coach said other key contributors, such as Marco Anthony and Branden Carlson, are also limping to the finish line. He said the Utes are so “shredded physically” and so “hashed” that he may have to hold some guys out of practices this week so they can “get their legs back.”

“You can see it,” Smith said. “It is so obvious.”

The 7-foot Carlson, who “walked” on Senior Night although the fourth-year player still hasn’t announced whether he plans to return next year, has especially seemed to be worn down. 

After going 4 of 14 in 30 minutes against UCLA (and getting beat down the court twice for dunks), the Bingham High product was 4 of 17 against USC. He did manage to snare 10 rebounds Saturday night, five on the offensive end, and also made a big 3-pointer with 5:52 remaining that pulled the Utes to within six.

Alas, that was Utah’s final field goal of the night.

“We have to really look hard at both games — I have watched the UCLA game twice now — and just see what we can do to put guys in better position to have sustained success,” Smith said.

Why was the coach so emotional and fighting back tears?

“It has been a long week, and … I love our seniors, and they are just amazing people. They give everything they have got,” he said, referring to Anthony, Carlson, Bostyn Holt, Eli Ballstaedt and Jaxon Brenchley. 

“All five of them are like, just the consummate pro,” Smith continued. “And we talk about what makes a good teammate. A great teammate is when it is not about you. All five of those guys are like that. … So yeah, (losses) are hard. They are hard on everyone.”

With his family in town and attending the postgame news conference, Anthony also got emotional in recapping his college career, while still staying the Utes’ season is far from over.

“So just not getting it done, that hurts a little bit more tonight,” Anthony said. “…Even though we are on this losing streak, there is still a lot ahead of us and I am just enjoying the moment every time.”

Anthony joined Smith in refusing to use the Madsen and Worster injuries as excuses, but acknowledged the absences of two top players “is a thing” and difficult to overcome.

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“We want to go to Boulder, take care of business there, and get our mojo back,” Anthony said. “… We just gotta stay in the moment. Everything is still in front of us. I feel like our mojo has been lost a little bit. But it is always the next man up mentality for us, and we just gotta find it.”

Utah’s NET ranking has fallen to 68 with the four straight losses, and the Utes are clearly out of the NCAA Tournament picture. Their only chance of making the Big Dance is to win the conference tournament, an incredibly daunting task, with or without Worster and Madsen, because they quite likely will have to win four straight games at T-Mobile Arena.

They are still solidly in the NIT field, according to bracketologists who project the field for that second-tier tournament, but might have to beat Colorado on Saturday to get a top four seed and host a first-round game in that draw.

“So, let’s get some momentum here going into Colorado,” Smith said. “Colorado is a hard place to win at. They always have a great crowd. It is their senior night, I am assuming. Let’s try to find a way to get some mojo here going into the conference tournament. … Things aren’t over until (they) are over.”


Runnin’ Utes on the air

Utah (17-13, 10-9) at Colorado (15-14, 7-11)

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. MST

At CU Events Center, Boulder, Colorado

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700