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‘I didn’t like the feeling of being 1-3 against BYU’: Utah’s Branden Carlson savors win over Cougars

Carlson had 15 points and eight rebounds in his fifth BYU-Utah game.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Spencer Johnson (20) drives to the basket as he is defended by Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

Branden Carlson could have opted out of this moment, and nobody would have blamed him.

Last offseason, Carlson entered the NCAA Transfer Portal and could have wrote his ticket just about anywhere. Who wouldn’t want a fifth-year senior who was a 7-foot tall, Pac-12 veteran?

But Utah’s forward stayed. There were a number of reasons, Carlson will tell you. But high on the list: He wanted to play BYU one last time after a 1-3 record.

“Growing up in Utah, watching this rivalry, I grew up a BYU fan and came here,” Carlson said. “We won my freshman year and we lost the last three. I didn’t like the feeling of being 1-3 against BYU. You know that wasn’t the whole reason for coming back, but it had a huge part. It is just a great tradition of this game.”

Carlson used his final BYU-Utah game to score 15 points and grab eight rebounds to propel Utah to a 73-69 win.

It was the first win over BYU in the Craig Smith era and allowed one of Utah’s best players to ride off on a high.

But it was also a performance that left Smith close to tears because of what it meant.

“I don’t talk a lot about individuals, everything we do is as a team,” Smith said. “But obviously the players know, everybody knows how important this was to him. You are going to get me emotional here.”

Smith paused for several seconds and looked away. His eyes watered.

“I mean that guy is a legendary Ute,” he continued. “He tested the waters last year and there is lot of stuff that goes on the recruiting front behind the scenes. He had a lot options and there was never a doubt what he wanted to do. He is a Runnin’ Ute. This is a big part of why he came back and he played like it tonight. He played a like a fifth-year dude. Like an All-Pac-12 dude. Played like one of the best players in the country.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes fans high fives Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) after defeating the Brigham Young Cougars at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

Carlson’s status for this game was in doubt as late as Saturday morning. He had been dealing with an undisclosed injury since Nov. 30 and barely practiced.

He went through a limited workout on Friday afternoon before the game. But tests had to be done on Saturday morning to clear him.

“He really hasn’t done anything since the Hawaii game [10 days ago],” Smith said. “... That is what winners do. Dude’s a winner. And he loves this University of Utah. He loves this place.”

Smith went to bed hopeful on Friday that Carlson would play. But even he didn’t know for sure.

What he ended up getting, though, was better than even he expected.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) shoots as Brigham Young Cougars center Aly Khalifa (50) blocks at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

“He showed a little bit of rust. He got tired quicker,” Smith finished. “...But at the end of the day, the guy’s leg would have had to be dragging for him not play in this game. You still have to go through your protocols and be smart with what you are doing in practice. But I think a doctor would have had to tell him like, ‘No you can’t go.’ And he still might have tried.”