Runnin’ Utes basketball sends message to Pac-12 after they stun No. 4 Arizona

Utah wins 81-66 in an upset and arguably the biggest moment in Craig Smith’s coaching tenure so far.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah bench erupts as the University of Utah hosts the Arizona Wildcats in NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Lazar Stefanovic walked into the frontcourt as time ticked away at the Huntsman Center. The sophomore Utah Runnin’ Utes smiled widely, flapping his arms up and down to tell the crowd get louder than they already were. Junior guard Rollie Worster and senior center Branden Carlson joined in.

When the buzzer sounded, the entire Runnin’ Utes team huddled up and cheered while jumping up and down. Coach Craig Smith ran into the stands to thank the student section and members of the university’s Greek row before then sharing a moment with his wife and children.

In the tunnel, a Utah official handed a phone to Smith and said university president Taylor Randall was on the line. When the call was over, players and coaches in the locker room could be heard chanting, “Heeeyyy, what’s up what’s up.”

It was a celebration fit for a team that was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12. A celebration fit for a coach that in his first season at the helm won only 11 games after three straight seasons of NCAA Tournament berths with Utah State.

When Utah beat the No. 4 Arizona Wildcats 81-66 on Thursday in front of 6,495 fans, it put the conference — and maybe even the country — on notice.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Lazar Stefanovic (20) and Utah Utes guard Gabe Madsen (55) celebrate their 81 to 66 win against the Arizona Wildcats in NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

“Don’t doubt us,” Carlson said when asked what message the win sent to the Pac-12. “Don’t count us out.”

Utah handed Arizona, the defending Pac-12 champion, its first loss of the season. The Wildcats were also a 6.5-point favorite to win heading into Thursday, but the Runnin’ Utes took that prognostication and sent it home in disgrace.

Smith averted the attention away from himself when asked what this win meant for him. He instead focused on the simple fact that beating the No. 4 team in the country is always going to matter because the opportunities to do so come few and far between.

“I think it’s a huge win for our program, it’s a huge win for our fan base,” Smith said.

Carlson led the way for the Runnin’ Utes with 22 points. He shot 5 of 9 from the 3-point line and added five rebounds and two blocks. Arguably his most meaningful 3-point make came with less than 14 minutes in the second half after the Wildcats had cut their 19-point first-half deficit to just six.

Carlson’s shot put Utah back up nine and sparked a run that culminated in senior guard Marco Anthony’s layup that put the team up 70-50 with less than eight minutes remaining.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) shows his wingspan against Arizona Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis (10) as the University of Utah hosts the Arizona Wildcats in NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Carlson is Utah’s leading scorer and one of its more experienced players. But on Thursday, when the team needed a star performance, he saw the time on the call sheet, showed up early and gave an award-worthy performance.

“He just had a look like you would expect out of an all-league guy, a fourth-year guy,” Smith said of Carlson. “Everybody wants to be the man until it’s time to be the man. And when you’re the man, you have to show up every day and you’re going to get everybody’s best punch. But he just had a big-time look in his eyes.”

Not only did Carlson have to score and do so in some crucial moments, but he also had to defend Arizona big men Ąžuolas Tubelis and Ourmar Ballo. They combined for 42 points, but Carlson was physical with them and even blocked one of Tubelis’s shots in the opening minutes of the game.

“I had to come ready to go, come out and play physical,” Carlson said. “My team did that same thing as well.”

Worster, who Smith coached at Utah State, posted a near triple-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. It was arguably the best game of his college career on a night when the Runnin’ Utes needed strong guard play on both ends of the floor. He made two free throws that gave Utah an 11-point lead down the stretch.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Rollie Worster (25) advances the ball as the University of Utah hosts the Arizona Wildcats in NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

It remains to be seen how well the Runnin’ Utes will compete against the rest of the Pac-12 throughout the rest of the season. But for at least one night, they deserved to smile, to cheer, jump and down, to revel like kings.

“It was just exciting,” Carlson said of his feelings as the game ended. “It was a battle all game. … So when you just saw those last final seconds go off, it was great.”