Branden Carlson has played in 70 games at the Huntsman Center since he took his basketball talents from Bingham High to the University of Utah, but Saturday will likely be one of the more memorable nights for the South Jordan native.

On Senior Night, the 7-foot center, who has defined toughness and loyalty for the Runnin’ Utes over the past five seasons, was the emotional and statistical leader as Utah rolled past California, 88-59.

“I’m so thankful for the fans and coaches and everyone who has been a part of this journey.”

—  Utah center Branden Carlson

Carlson finished the game with 30 points and 10 rebounds, while shooting 12 of 17 from the field and 4 of 6 from 3-point range.

“You know, I love this program and my time here, just to be able to get another win with this team, knowing that we’ve still got more to go and accomplish,” Carlson said Saturday night.

“I’m so thankful for the fans and coaches and everyone who has been a part of this journey.”

What stood out from Branden Carlson’s Senior Night?

There were a few milestones Carlson accomplished Saturday night:

  • It was the third time Carlson scored 30 or more points this season — he’s the first Runnin’ Ute with that many 30-point games in a season since Keith Van Horn had five in 1996-97. “Anytime you do something like that and your name is in the same sentence as Van Horn, I think that says a lot,” Utah coach Craig Smith said.
  • He became the first Utah player with 30 points and 10 rebounds in a game since Jakob Poeltl did so against Temple on Nov. 22, 2015.
  • Carlson passed Jeff Judkins, now an assistant coach for the Utah women’s team, for seventh all-time in scoring at Utah — he now has 1,746 career points, six more than Judkins.

Carlson, who became the program’s all-time blocks leader less than a month ago, added four more to his total against California.

He scored 17 of his 30 points before halftime.

Carlson’s first 3-pointer gave Utah its first three-possession lead of the night, and he later went on a personal 7-0 run that included another 3, two dunks and a blocked shot on the other end as Utah built a double-digit advantage.

Carlson, who tested the NBA waters last offseason before returning one more year to the U., then started and capped an 18-6 second-half spurt with a pair of jumpers as the Utes built a 20-point lead.

His final 3-pointer also came in the middle of that run.

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The victory helped Utah (18-11, 9-9 Pac-12) rebound a bit from a tough stretch that has put them squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and now the Utes head into their final week of the regular season on a two-game win streak and tied for fifth in the Pac-12 standings.

His 30 points was double what Carlson had scored in the Utes’ past two games combined, as the fifth-year center has seen his share of double-teams and different defenses as the face of the franchise.

“When you’re a really good player, you’re a marked man every night. It’s just how it is — people are gonna game plan for you and try to take you out of it and make other people beat you. That guy has seen about every kind of coverage you can imagine,” Smith said of Carlson.

“... He just had that look tonight. You could see it.”

Carlson left the game with 1:59 remaining to a hearty cheer from the crowd.

“It’s going be a tough adjustment leaving after this year. I did so good all day not crying,” Carlson said. “... It feels good to have a good game here, last time in the Huntsman Center.”

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) holds the hand of his wife during his senior night before a game against the California Golden Bears at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 2, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

What Utah’s honored seniors said about Saturday’s game

Carlson was one of four Utah seniors honored before the game, joined by Gabe Madsen, Cole Bajema and Ben Carlson in the ceremonies.

Madsen, who’s in his third season at Utah after transferring from Cincinnati, was the team’s third-leading scorer against California. He put up 17 points, including 14 in the second half, while making four 3-pointers.

“Super happy for him. Obviously he’s been here for five years and it’s really cool to see him go out like that,” Madsen said of Carlson’s big night. “Our emphasis before the game was like, do it for the seniors. I feel like that was a good way to end the season at the Huntsman.”

Bajema, the former Washington guard who came to Utah this season as a grad transfer, had three points and five rebounds against California, two nights after he set a career-high with 21 points in a win over Stanford.

“BC has been great. Obviously he’s been here the longest, but the legacy he’s built here, the way he wants to finish the season — the way we want to finish the season — we’re not done yet,” Bajema said. “We’re lucky to have him, he’s a great teammate.”

Seniors, Utah Utes forward Ben Carlson (1), guard Cole Bajema (2), guard Gabe Madsen (55), and center Branden Carlson (35) are congratulated during a game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 2, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Ben Carlson added two points and a steal in one of his quieter nights in a season where the forward, a transfer from Wisconsin in his second year in the Utes program, has been a key role player coming off the bench.

“BC is a great leader, had a great last game in the Huntsman. I know he’s put a lot of work into it over his five years,” Ben Carlson said. “For us, it was a lot of fun having a big win in our last game here, so it was a good way to go out at home.”

Bajema is the only other one besides Branden Carlson who, for sure, won’t be returning, as both players will exhaust their eligibility at the end of the season. Because of the free year of eligibility the NCAA granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both Madsen and Ben Carlson still have a year of eligibility remaining.

Bajema wrapped up what the emotions of getting to Senior Night meant to him.

“It’s kind of weird how it kind of happened so fast, like it feels like it’s not too long ago I was coming in as a freshman,” he said. “And people will tell you it goes by fast, but it really does and just the way it’s ending right now, I want to finish this strong with these guys and there’s no other team I want to do this with than these guys.”

Seniors, Utah Utes forward Ben Carlson (1), guard Cole Bajema (2), guard Gabe Madsen (55), and center Branden Carlson (35) light the U after winning a game against the California Golden Bears at the Huntsman Center on senior night in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 2, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News