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Branden Carlson’s strong play coinciding with Utah hoops’ recent winning streak

Utes have won five of seven, with Carlson scoring and shooting above his season averages in the five wins

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) blocks a shot by Oregon State Beavers guard Ethan Thompson (5) as the University of Utah hosts Oregon State, NCAA men's basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.

In a span of eight seconds Thursday afternoon, Branden Carlson picked up his second and third fouls, respectively, sending the University of Utah’s 7-foot sophomore center to the bench with 18:18 to play at Cal.

It was evident that Carlson was having trouble inside dealing with Golden Bears junior forward Andre Kelly, but no matter. With 14:42 to play at Haas Pavilion and things headed towards a back-and-forth finish, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak went back to Carlson, who re-entered the game with instructions.

“Coach just said be smart,” Carlson said. “Obviously, don’t pick up any dumb fouls. I tried to play aggressive and hard, but I made smart decisions.”

Carlson stayed on the floor nearly the remainder of the game, only checking out with 15 seconds left as Utah went offense-defense with its substitutions, holding on for dear life late for its third-straight win, 76-75. Carlson indeed played smart. He didn’t pick up another foul, and yes, he stayed aggressive despite those three fouls.

When it was over, Carlson had registered a strong game, finishing with 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting to go along with three blocks, plus an untold number of altered shots at the rim.

“It’s hard, and Kelly’s a load,” Krystkowiak said. “He’s one of the league’s better postmen and they looked to get him the ball, so that was a big-time challenge for Branden. I thought he played behind and got himself in harm’s way early on, but he made some adjustments, protected the rim for us.”

UTAH AT STANFORD

When • Saturday, 8 p.m. MT

TV • Pac-12 Networks

Utah, which plays Saturday night at a Stanford team currently on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, can get away most nights without Carlson giving it a ton on the offensive end, but when he is dialed defensively, the Utes are much tougher to deal with.

Blocking shots is one thing, but Carlson’s defensive value cannot be measured by just that. A handful of times in the second half, he did a nice job of sliding over from the help side to challenge a would-be scorer at the rim. Those are the types of plays that don’t show up in a box score, but have been critical to Utah’s recent success.

No, Carlson does not have to do a ton of scoring, but his offensive exploits have coincided with that recent success as the Utes have won five of their seven. In the five wins, Carlson averaged 10.6 points on 59.7% shooting. Both of those numbers are better than his season averages of 8.1 points per game on 57.1% shooting, but none of this takes into account a season-high 18 points in a Jan. 24 loss at Washington.

By any measurement, Carlson has it going on offense of late, and Utah is better off for it. Within the offensive prowess, Carlson continues to be a confident shooter all the way out to the 3-point line, and for some reason, defenses are continually willing to let him shoot from out there.

More than once at Cal, Carlson found himself with the ball outside of 10 feet, whether it was on a pick-and-pop or out of an offensive set. He showed no hesitation in shooting as he hit a few jumpers, while the defense didn’t react quickly enough to what was happening.

“I’m still surprised at how open I find myself,” Carlson said, cracking a smile in the process. “I feel like they don’t respect it enough, but I’m not complaining about it, though. If they leave me open, I’ll take it. People are still not totally locked in that I can knock those down on a consistent level.”

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