Runnin’ Utes surge in second half to beat California

Utah men’s basketball team improves to 1-1 in Pac-12 play with 66-58 victory

Utah guard Both Gach (2) dunks during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against California, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Isaac Hale)

The beginning of Utah’s basketball game against California on Sunday could aptly be described as a cold start for both teams.

Cold, like a 40-year-old car trying to turn over after being left out of the garage on a zero-degree morning.

Eventually, enough components for the host Utes got going for a 66-58 victory at the Huntsman Center as Utah (6-2, 1-1) drew even in Pac-12 play early in the schedule.

“Obviously, a slow start to the game for both teams. Two-to-two at the first media timeout,” said Utah coach Craig Smith of the first break over six minutes into the contest. “After that both teams got loose. That got going, we got going. We couldn’t stop them the last five minutes of the first half.”

California (4-5, 1-1), led by Jordan Shepherd’s 14 points, went ahead 35-29 at half although Smith was heartened by the way his team was holding down the Bears’ usual leading scorer, Andre Kelly.

“He came into the game shooting 16-and-a-half a game and we held him to four [points],” said Smith, who credited Utes’ junior center Lahat Thioune for his defensive job on Kelly. “They do a good job of getting him touches and touches in deep spots.

“Lahat was really locked in and impacted the game in so many ways for us.”

California guard Makale Foreman (10) drives to the basket while guarded by Utah center Branden Carlson, right, and Utah guard Both Gach, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Isaac Hale)

Utah’s offense then came to life after the intermission break and, by hitting four shots for a 10-0 run, used that stretch to take the lead — an edge the Utes wouldn’t relinquish.

Rollie Worster started the second half with a bucket, followed by a 3-pointer from Brandon Carlson, to trim a six-point deficit down to one. Both Gach then hit a short jumper in the lane for a 36-35 lead and that was followed by Gach nailing a 3.

“We just talked at halftime about getting stops,” Gach said. “That’s how we were going to win this game, it wasn’t going to be going back-and-forth on offense and see who outscores the other team.”

“I think we had seven straight stops to start the second half and we, boom-boom-boom-boom, strung some things together there,” Smith said.

The biggest thorn for Cal in the second half turned out to be Utah’s Lazar Stefanovic, a 6-foot-7 freshman guard from Serbia. Stefanovic finished with 11 points. A 41-39 score became a five-point lead when Gach kicked out to Stefanovic, who hit a 3 with 13 minutes left. Three minutes later, after the Bears crept within two, Stefanovic popped another trey for a 50-45 advantage.

“Stef was outstanding all night long. When he was on the floor, good things happened for our team in every way, shape and form,” Smith said.

It was still a workable four-point deficit for the visitors after California scored five straight points to make it 58-54 with five minutes left. But Thione, on a pass from Gach, dunked the ball to thwart the run and, with 1:50 left, Kelly spun Carlson to the floor while the two were fighting for a rebound.

Carlson, who hurt his ankle in the Utes’ loss at USC on Thursday, then made both free throws to push the score to 62-54.

“Brandon, if you saw that game, his ankle was not pretty and he didn’t do anything the last three days,” said Smith, whose team will next be in action Wednesday against Texas Christian. “It was a last-second, [he] decided to play.

“Sometime, in today’s day and age, guys feel like they need to be a hundred percent for a multitude of reasons. You know, whether it’s to protect their stat line or just whatever it might be. Give that kid a lot of credit, he gutted it out,” the Utes coach added.

Carlson ended up with 12 points while Gach led all players with 19.

After the game, the Utes’ 7-footer gave a passing grade to his ankle.

“It’s all right. It’s not a hundred percent, but it’s getting there. I just got here early and did some stuff with our trainer and we just decided that we’d go today,” Carlson said.

“It was all right during the game, had a few tweaks here and there, but overall it’s pretty good.”

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