Runnin’ Utes finally get back to full strength, but still suffer fifth-straight loss
Rollie Worster and Gabe Madsen combine for 24 points in their returns in 69-60 loss to Colorado
The Runnin’ Utes got some good news before tipoff Saturday afternoon as coach Craig Smith announced his starting backcourt of Rollie Worster and Gabe Madsen would be able to play against the rival Colorado Buffaloes at CU Center in Boulder, Colorado.
But it all went downhill from there for a hardluck team desperately needing a good break or two heading into March Madness.
“It has been a tough little stretch here. But we can’t wallow in our sorrows and we need to have two good days of practice (before heading to Las Vegas).” — Utah coach Craig Smith
Worster and Madsen played reasonably well in Worster’s first game back in two weeks and Madsen’s first appearance in five weeks, but didn’t get a lot of help from their veteran teammates and the Utes fell 69-60 to drop into the seventh seed for the Pac-12 tournament next week in Las Vegas.
Having lost five straight games, Utah (17-14, 10-10) will meet 10th-seeded Stanford in a first-round game Wednesday at 7 p.m. MST at T-Mobile Arena.
“Certainly disappointing,” said coach Craig Smith, whose team was in third place in the Pac-12 standings three weeks ago but has to settle for seventh and a difficult first-round draw. Stanford and Utah split their games in the regular season, each winning on the other’s home floor.
“It has been a tough little stretch here,” Smith told ESPN 700 radio. “But we can’t wallow in our sorrows and we need to have two good days of practice (before heading to Las Vegas).”
Still, the Utes won six more league games this year than last, so as a whole the season has to be considered a success at this juncture. It’s just that the Utes continued to fade in late February and early March, even with Worster and Madsen back in the lineup.
Colorado (16-15, 8-12) could have used the excuse of not having starting point guard and leading scorer KJ Simpson (illness) for Saturday’s matinee, but didn’t really need the sharpshooter and penetrator because Julian Hammond and Tristan da Silva scored 15 points apiece and Nique Clifford added 14.
“Those three guards really, really hurt us,” Smith said.
The Utes also hurt themselves, missing plenty of easy shots and struggling in the first half against Colorado’s zone. The Buffaloes led 33-21 at halftime, and the Utes got no closer than six in the final 20 minutes.
“We struggled with their zone for awhile and then we really settled in and attacked it really, really well (in the second half),” Smith said. “But credit to them. They made some big plays.”
The Utes were a frosty 2 of 15 from 3-point range in the first half when the game got away from them. They finished 9 of 30 from deep, if only because Madsen got hot early in the second half and made three consecutive 3-pointers.
The sophomore’s third triple cut CU’s lead to 44-36 with 14 minutes left, but the Utes scored just four points in the next six minutes before Lazar Stefanovic nailed a 3 to end the drought.
“I thought we really settled for some quick shots and some tough shots,” Smith said. “We have to be better to beat good teams, specifically on the road, and we know they are a very, very good home team.
Their crowd is outstanding. They feed off of that,” he continued. “They got off to a good start and they never stopped or never wavered.”
And the Utes not named Rollie Worster (5 of 8 for 15 points) never stopped misfiring.
Branden Carlson had 13 points and 10 rebounds, but was 5 of 15 from the field. Stefanovic missed his first seven shots and was 4 of 15; Marco Anthony was 1 of 7 and Madsen finished 3 of 10.
“Like I told our guys after: We gotta finish plays,” Smith said. “I mean, we had some really clean, chip-shot, point-blank stuff that we just didn’t finish.”
Utah’s defense mostly traveled, as it usually does, but the Buffs gained some momentum early by going 4 of 10 from 3-point range in the first half and never really cooled off. They finished shooting 46% from the field and 38% from 3-point range.
Colorado also hurt Utah in transition, scoring 20 fast-break points. Colorado won the rebounding battle, 30-23.
If there was a silver lining for the Utes, it was the fact that Worster and Madsen returned and showed flashes of past brilliance.
“Those guys were able to get back on the floor together and hopefully get some synergy and a little bit of a rhythm to their game going into Wednesday night against Stanford,” Smith said.