Gabe Madsen, Utah offense show signs of life as the Utes hang on to beat Colorado

After two blowout losses, head coach Craig Smith sees progress in the bigger picture

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Deivon Smith (5) shoots as Colorado Buffaloes forward Tristan da Silva (23) defends, in PAC-12 basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Colorado Buffaloes a the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024.

Craig Smith pulled out an old phrase to describe Utah’s 73-68 win over Colorado.

“Beauty is all about perspective,” Utah’s head coach said.

Smith was making a preemptive defense for a game where Utah gave up 15 offensive rebounds, turned the ball over 14 times and saw a 12-point almost vanish in the final four minutes. It certainly wasn’t pretty.

But after back-to-back losses where the Utes were outscored by 47 points, Smith saw beauty in the bigger picture. A win, in any form, was progress.

“It wasn’t a thing of beauty in a lot of people’s minds, I’m sure,” he said. “... I thought we did some things very well and I thought we did some things not so well. But it is hard to win. I don’t care what sport you’re in, what level. Winning is difficult.”

Even if it wasn’t easy, Utah improved on Saturday. Point guard Deivon Smith neared a triple double, coming one assist shy in a 17-point game.

Gabe Madsen, who had been held to single digits in four of his past five games, finally had 21 points and hit two 3s down the stretch to give Utah’s offense some breathing room.

He was more involved offensively, something Smith spent all week trying to figure out. Smith forced Madsen to take two days off after the team’s road trip to Washington last week. He’d been averaging over 33 minutes a night since the middle of January.

“We put in some new things that I think will help him,” Smith said. “It is not just getting shots. It is getting touches. He needs to touch the ball more.”

It seemed to work as Madsen had 15 points in the second half. When Colorado went over six minutes without a field goal, Madsen’s offense helped stretch the lead to 13 with over eight minutes to play.

“It is hard when you are a really good shooter and sometimes you don’t get the ball as much as you want, or like,” Smith said. “Touching the ball a few times keeps you in the rhythm of the game.”

Lawson Lovering, getting his first minutes since a January injury, had seven points in the second half and helped anchor the defense. Having him available allowed Smith to rotate in the front court with Keba Keita and Branden Carlson.

“We really got better,” Smith said. “I thought it was really easy to see in practice. Do we have work to do? Of course we do. But it helped getting the big fella back. It helps make a difference.”

The Utah team that was blown out in Washington and Washington State last week still wasn’t gone.

It let a 12-point lead get all the way down to three with 20 seconds left. Colorado’s KJ Simpson scored 25 points, with 10 of them coming in the final two minutes.

A number of bad turnovers, including by Smith, helped Colorado get back into the game — even when the Buffalos shot 38% from the field and had 14 turnovers of their own.

But it was enough. And this is what Smith will take away.

“It was a long road trip last week,” Smith said. “We were on the road for six days, 12 straight days we were doing something with basketball... It’s huge [to win].”