All those University of Utah basketball fans checking out the Runnin’ Utes for the first time this season in the 63-58 loss to No. 9 UCLA on Thursday night at the Huntsman Center had to be surprised by more than a couple developments.

Announced attendance was 7,785, which seemed legitimate, given the noise the home crowd generated when the Utes were attempting to pull off a big upset in the final 10 minutes. It was the second-largest crowd for basketball at the Huntsman Center since 2020, as 11,443 watched Utah lose 75-64 to then-ranked BYU on Nov. 27.

The U. students showed up in a big way, finally, after being mostly AWOL the first non-BYU matchups of the 2021-22 season.

“You know, we just, we are getting closer. ... We are close. We are knocking on the door. So hopefully we can sustain that and keep climbing the ladder, keep getting better, and keep fighting for everything.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

Back to the surprises.

For starters, the Utes (8-11, 1-8) are better than their record indicates. They looked nothing like a team on a seven-game losing streak. UCLA coach Mick Cronin acknowledged as much in his postgame comments, saying the Bruins were fortunate to pull out the win.

“When you win on the road in conference play, you get a shower, something to eat, and that’s it,” Cronin told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not supposed to be pretty.”

Beautiful, it wasn’t. For either team. But that’s the way the Utes wanted it. Coach Craig Smith said he “100%” would have taken UCLA scoring just 63 points if he was told that leading up to the game.

Then Smith conceded that the Utes “maybe are not quite as talented as some of these teams” in the Pac-12, a rare, but somewhat refreshing, acknowledgement by a coach at any level. He quickly added that it is partly this way because Utah is without star center Branden Carlson, its “rim protector, elite offensive player, go-to scorer, most experienced guy at this level, and certainly most experienced guy in the Pac-12 (play), him and (Riley Battin).”

Carlson, Utah’s leading scorer with a 13.5 average, has been out after an appendicitis attack two weeks ago and probably won’t play Saturday afternoon (4:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) when the Utes play host to No. 16 USC at the Huntsman Center.

When Carlson is back, the Utes will be a dangerous team. Heck, they are dangerous now; an upset of the Trojans (15-2, 5-2) is not out of the realm of possibility, even if USC snapped a seven-game losing streak to Colorado on Thursday night with a 61-58 win in Boulder.

USC was ranked as high as No. 5 until losing 75-69 at Stanford on Jan. 11 and routed Utah 93-73 back on Dec. 1 in both teams’ Pac-12 opener. Carlson sustained a sprained ankle in the first half and missed the entire second half, the beginning of his injury and illness-marred junior season.

That USC loss was Utah’s first game without backup center Dusan Mahorcic (besides the BYU game when he was injured early) and second without leading rebounder Marco Anthony. Both players are back now, and playing reasonably well.

Mahorcic struggled a bit Thursday against the Bruins, going 0 for 4 in 20 minutes, but gives the Utes a certain toughness and physical edge they didn’t have until he returned on Jan. 6 against Washington.

“You know, we just, we are getting closer,” Smith said. “… We are close. We are knocking on the door. So hopefully we can sustain that and keep climbing the ladder, keep getting better, and keep fighting for everything.”

Freshman guard Lazar Stefanovic, who led the Utes with 18 points but missed an open 3-pointer at the top of the key with five seconds left that would have tied the score, said Smith is right. The Utes are dead last in the Pac-12 standings but aren’t that far away from the league leaders when they’re clicking.

They proved that Thursday against UCLA.

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“I think we are very, very close. We lost some games that maybe we should have won, and it really hurts,” he said. “ I feel so sorry for our guys, and for our team, because we were working so hard, we were showing up every day for practice, we were giving our best, and we showed it tonight against one of the best teams in the country.”

Stefanovic said the Utes were bolstered by the boisterous crowd and had the right mindset. They expected to win.

“We come in and when we want to play for 40 minutes, we can play with anybody,” Stefanovic said. “We showed that tonight. We were so close. We are just going to keep pushing, working harder and getting better, because I think in the last two weeks we got enormously better.”

Thursday’s other surprise for Utah patrons was that Smith went deep into his bench, playing 11 guys. Every player, even walk-on Eli Ballstaedt out of Heber City’s Wasatch High, played at least four minutes. Utah’s bench outscored UCLA’s bench 28-3.

“We are going to reward performance,” Smith said, noting that Ballstaedt and fellow Utahn Jaxon Brenchley “make plays” in practice and work hard.

Stefanovic, who played a team-high 31:50 minutes, said the regulars welcome the enlarged rotation.

“We have a lot of guys that work really, really hard in practices. They really deserve to play,” he said. “It is always better when you have a longer rotation. Because you can play for a few minutes, and then you come back in and are fresh. You are not in a position where you are tired. I think it mostly helps the team get better.”

And right now, getting better is what this team is all about.

Utes, Trojans on the air

Utah (8-11, 1-8) vs. USC (15-2, 5-2)

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Saturday, 4:30 p.m. MST

At the Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700 AM

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