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After some soul-searching following ugly loss at TCU, Utah basketball blows out Manhattan

Utes put four in double figures as attention turns to intriguing matchup at Missouri on Saturday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Both Gach (2) dunks the ball, as Manhattan Jaspers forward Warren Williams (0) defends, in basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Manhattan Jaspers at the Jon M.Huntsman Center, on Saturday, December 11, 2021.

Rarely, if ever, does Craig Smith express anything approaching anger, or even negative emotion, in a media setting.

In the wake of the University of Utah cruising to a 96-62 win over Manhattan College on Saturday afternoon at the Huntsman Center, the topic turned to an ugly loss on Wednesday at TCU. Not only the loss, but Thursday, Friday, and how these Utes responded to postgame adversity. For the first time in nine games on Wednesday, Utah looked completely out of sync, and Smith was not pleased.

Following that 76-62 loss at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Smith watched the film that night back at the hotel. The team left the hotel at 5:45 a.m. on Thursday morning, caught an early flight back to Salt Lake City, and later in the day, Smith says they conducted what he called a “humbling film session.”

“To our guys’ credit, we handled it well, but we don’t want to get to the point where you always have to have a film session to handle it well and come back,” Smith said Saturday after the Utes moved to 7-3 overall and 6-2 against their non-conference schedule. “You’re in the airport (the next morning), and people should be PO’d. It’s not a very fun, enjoyable feeling, and I think it’s not only that, it’s the way that we lost. That’s not us. That’s not going to be our DNA, that’s not going to be our team. It’s not going to happen.”

Aside from the film session, which 7-foot junior center Branden Carlson later admitted was a long one, there were individual meetings, individual film sessions, and Smith and his staff generally taking the temperature of their program after it hit its first real roadblock.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Both Gach (2) gets past Jaspers forward Warren Williams (0), in basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Manhattan Jaspers at the Jon M.Huntsman Center, on Saturday, December 11, 2021.

Smith has said time and again as the first eight months of his tenure as Utes head coach has unfolded that he has a close group of players off the floor. Those types of relationships lend themselves to brutal honesty at times, so there was some of that, too, both from the coaches and from the players policing each other.

That isn’t always an easy thing to navigate, but this Utah team, with mostly veteran guys, albeit not all veteran Utes, appears mature enough to deal with it.

Smith called that Thursday film session productive, Carlson said Friday’s practice was high-energy, so that led into Saturday’s game against Manhattan.

Wednesday is now way back in the rear-view mirror, because Saturday’s effort was as thorough and complete as Utah has had all season. In closing a stretch of three games in seven days with final exams approaching this week, the Utes shot 58.3% from the floor and 55.6% from 3-point range. They assisted on 26 of 35 made field goals.

Maybe most importantly, Utah was plus-13 on the glass and defended at a superb clip, yielding just 32.8% shooting, including just 5-for-20 from 3-point range. The rebounding and the defense are two things that Smith demands, two things Smith will never go soft on, and he got them both for the majority of 40 minutes on Saturday.

“Every game is a learning experience for us,” junior forward Riley Battin said after scoring 14 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists. “We took what we needed to improve on from the last game, went out and made those improvements today. I think we did a good job and took a step forward for sure.”

There are very few negatives to harp on in beating a low-major, albeit one that could challenge in the MAAC come March. Battin was one of four Utes in double figures, a group paced by Lahat Thioune, who had 16 points and seven boards off the bench, playing an expanded role with Dusan Mahorcic out until February.

Marco Anthony started to look like himself after returning Wednesday after missing three games with a sprained ankle. Gabe Madsen, who Smith has continually talked up as a deadeye shooter off his bench, saw a few shots go in Saturday as he continues to make his way back from injury. Both Gach has now played three straight games in which he has arguably looked like the best Ute on the floor, getting out in transition, slashing to the rim, taking smart shots from the perimeter.

With the ship seemingly righted following a strong effort, now comes the next question: How do Smith and his staff handle the next few days? Utah will have final exams beginning Monday, so there is that to consider as the Utes turn their attention to an intriguing, winnable Power Five matchup against Missouri on Saturday in Columbia (2:30 p.m., SEC Network).

Smith indicated that he will meet with his staff on Sunday to make some final decisions as to how exactly the week will look between finals and basketball-related activities.

“We clearly have some guys that need, physically, and maybe a little bit mentally, to get away,” Smith said. “These dudes have been through a lot and it’s been a grind.”

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