UC Irvine was sticking around — even leading — late in the first half against Utah during their NIT first-round matchup at the Huntsman Center late Tuesday night.

Enter Gabe Madsen to give the Utes some breathing room and a little bit of their own March magic.

The No. 2 seed Runnin’ Utes, after falling behind by four following a 7-0 Anteaters spurt, went on a 12-2 run heading into intermission.

All of Utah’s points during the run came from 3-pointers — Ben Carlson hit one, followed by Hunter Erickson and Madsen the last two — as the Utes (20-14) re-established control in a game they led by eight early.

That ended up being the momentum swing Utah needed to pull out the 84-75 victory.

“You know, it’s obviously nice to end the half with some momentum and if that doesn’t happen, we might be tired, they could be up if we don’t get the stop,” the senior guard said.

“It’s nice to see some shots go down and then yeah, it’s obviously like I said, just nice to get some momentum going into the second half.”

Madsen’s 3-pointers were particularly impressive. After both teams went into the final minute of the half tied at 40-40, the Utah guard swished a fadeaway 3-pointer from straight away to give Utah the lead back.

“I thought a big part of this game was going into halftime, we call a play for Gabe. We executed it perfectly, of course Gabe comes off that thing like he does and sticks that thing,” Utah coach Craig Smith said of Madsen’s first 3-pointer in the final minute.

3 keys to Utah’s win over UC Irvine in NIT first round

After UC Irvine missed a field-goal attempt at the rim with five seconds until intermission, Branden Carlson quickly passed to Madsen in transition.

Madsen sped upcourt, used a behind-the-back dribble to get past a defender, then stepped up confidently and nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Utah the 46-40 halftime lead.

“Great poise by Gabe to come down and really drive his toes into the ground and not rush that shot,” Smith said. “And obviously when he shot it, I think the whole gym probably thought it was going in and certainly looked good from our angle and sticks it. So now you go up six and then I thought it just gave us some real momentum.”

After a first half in which the Utes suffered some defensive lapses, they saved themselves by heating up from 3-point range.

Utah made 8 of 14 treys in the first half, including five in the final three and a half minutes, and was 9 of 18 from long range in the game.

While Branden Carlson had himself a strong outing when Utah played its Senior Night game almost three weeks ago, the fifth-year senior again came up big on Tuesday.

He finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks.

“You could see it from BC — he just doesn’t want it to end,” Smith said.

Utah had 11 blocks as a team, which tied for third-most in a game in school history.

Offensively, Carlson was one of four Utah players who reached double-figures in the win, as Utah shot 55.2% from the field. The Utes also had 23 assists (tying a season high) on 32 made field goals.

“We were really cooking on the offensive end,” Smith said.

3 takeaways

Top performers: Four Utah players scored in double-figures against UC Irvine. Branden Carlson led the way with 21 points and added 11 rebounds and five blocks.

Gabe Madsen (16 points, seven rebounds, five assists), Deivon Smith (13 points, 10 assists, six rebounds) and Hunter Erickson (13 points, 3 of 3 from 3-point range) also paced the Utes offensively.

UC Irvine had three players in double-figures, with Derin Saran (16 points, five rebounds) leading the way.

Key stretch: Utah closed the first half out with a 12-2 run.

All of Utah’s points came from 3-pointers — the final two coming from Madsen in the half's final minute.

Madsen first hit a straightaway fading 3 to put Utah back up three. After a UC Irvine missed layup, Madsen raced upcourt, used a nifty behind-the-back dribble to juke a defender at midcourt, then pulled up for a long 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Key stats: Utah hit a flurry of 3-pointers at the end of the first half — five in the final three and a half minutes — to finish 8 of 14 in the first 20 minutes. Utah made 9 of 18 3-pointers on the night.

The Utes also had 23 assists on 32 made field goals and finished with 11 blocks.

Madsen got off to a strong start and finished with 16 points, with 11 of those in the first half, while adding seven rebounds and five assists. Deivon Smith tossed in 13 points, 10 assists and six rebounds.

For the third straight game, Erickson came off the bench and scored in double-figures, adding 13 while going 3 of 3 on 3-pointers. Craig Smith also called him a “bulldog” for his rugged defensive efforts.

UC Irvine, which has 11 players who average double-digit minutes, saw four players score in double-figures. Derin Saran had 16 points, five rebounds and two steals to lead that effort.

Utah went ahead 25-17 in the game’s early going, but UC Irvine fought its way back into the game by crashing the offensive boards hard.

The Anteaters (24-10) went on runs of 11-2 and 7-0 to eventually take their four-point lead before Madsen’s last-minute 3-point surge put the Utes ahead for good.

UC Irvine made a late push to keep the game interesting, though.

Utah went more than two minutes without scoring, and the Anteaters responded with a 9-0 run to make it a 77-73 game with two minutes to play off two 3-pointers that came just 13 seconds apart.

The Utes won it from the free-throw line from there, however, as Carlson hit four straight and Utah made 7 of 8 over the final two minutes to hang on.

“I was proud of how we responded. We executed two plays for BC, BC did a great job of winning those catches, obviously got fouled and goes 4 for 4 in those scenarios,” Craig Smith said of his team’s response to having UC Irvine cut it to a four-point game.

With the win, the Utes ensured themselves of at least one more home game.

Utah will host No. 3 seed Iowa, a 91-82 winner over Kansas State on Tuesday, during the NIT’s second round. The game will be played either Saturday or Sunday.

“I think if we put together a full game, start out strong, I really feel like teams can’t beat us,” Deivon Smith said.

For a Utes program that doesn’t have much postseason experience on the roster, the extended play is welcomed with open arms.

“We’ve got an exciting game coming,” Craig Smith said. “Postseason is a different vibe, a different feel.”