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Utah basketball: Toughness, physicality lacking in Utes’ first loss

That supposed new-and-improved Runnin’ Utes basketball team that started the season with three straight impressive wins might not be so much better than in 2021-22 after all.

The sample size is obviously still small, but Utah failed to display its increased toughness, physicality and rebounding ability Thursday night in front of an announced crowd of 5,503 at the Huntsman Center and was upset 65-55 by Sam Houston of the Western Athletic Conference.

“It is a tough one to swallow. We knew they were going to be a good team, but it is tough when you don’t win. It is tough when you don’t win any night, but especially the way we lost the game.” — Utah coach Craig Smith.

“It is a tough one to swallow,” said Utah coach Craig Smith. “We knew they were going to be a good team, but it is tough when you don’t win. It is tough when you don’t win any night, but especially the way we lost the game.”

The way they lost the game was missing too many easy shots at the rim, committing 16 turnovers, going an awful 8 of 16 from the free-throw line and getting out-rebounded 41-31, for starters.

Eleven of those giveaways came in the first half, when Sam Houston jumped out to a 21-8 lead and set the tone early that it had more quickness than the Utes, and, on this night, more toughness and grit.

“They beat us in every facet of the game,” said Utah point guard Rollie Worster, who had a team-high 14 points. “We missed free throws, they got to the paint, they out-rebounded us, they out-shot us. They got way more attempts (62-46) than we did. They just out-played us tonight.”

It was especially tough to take for the Utes because they spent a lot of the offseason getting bigger and stronger and talking about being tougher, then didn’t walk the walk after talking the talk.

For instance, Sam Houston guard Javion May, all 6-foot-2 of him, was the game’s leading rebounder, with nine. Fellow guard Qua Grant led all scorers with 22 points and pretty much got to the rim any time he wanted, often freeing his mates for open 3-point shots.

Turns out, Sam Houston’s 52-51 win over Oklahoma on opening night wasn’t a fluke. The Bearkats (4-0) are legit. 

“We knew they were good. I think every team we play, we have to expect really good teams every time,” Worster said. “We got to be a lot more physical and tougher throughout the whole game, the whole 40 minutes.”

With sixth-year senior guard Marco Anthony playing for the first time this season, the Utes came alive toward the end of the first half and cut the deficit to four at the break. They cut the visitors’ lead to one point a couple times in the second half but could never get over the hump.

“I felt like if we could get the lead, we could just kinda take off,” Smith said.

It didn’t happen, partly because the Utes kept shooting themselves in the foot with untimely turnovers, couldn’t grab that key rebound or couldn’t at times make laughably easy layups. 

Anthony, who wasn’t on a minutes restriction, Smith said, finished with eight points on 4 of 6 shooting in 19 minutes. Twice in the first half he made field goals with a toe on the 3-point line, but Smith thought overall “he did some really good things out there” and added a needed voice and presence to the Utes’ lineup.

“We had some opportunities there. Obviously we didn’t finish well around the basket,” Smith said. “… I thought we steadied the ship late in the first half and going into halftime I thought we had some momentum. And then, I mean, we had enough clean looks on offense (that didn’t fall).

“It was one of those things where you are knocking on the door and knocking on the door and knocking on the door and just couldn’t break through.”

Smith said some of the turnovers were “really senseless” and couldn’t be attributed to Sam Houston’s outstanding quickness. Others could.

Three nights after scoring a career-high 26 points against Idaho State, center Branden Carlson didn’t score in the first half and finished with nine points and seven rebounds in 31 minutes. Carlson asked to come out briefly in the first half due to some sort of minor injury, and Smith thought maybe that issue slowed the big guy.

“He just waved to come out, and then told me when he was ready to go back in,” Smith said. “I don’t even know where (the injury) was at.”

Smith felt like he should have gone more “big-big” to combat Sam Houston’s rebounding advantage, perhaps with more of BYU transfer Gavin Baxter (four minutes) or Wisconsin transfer Ben Carlson, who had one rebound and didn’t score in 13 minutes.

The coach said freshman Keba Keita played only two minutes because he was coming off an injury and Smith didn’t think he was quite ready.

“We just gotta be tougher,” Smith said. “The guys that played the most minutes, those are veteran guys. Those guys have been through some battles and we just gotta be better.”

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