Runnin’ Utes Tip Off the Craig Smith Era with a Win


Jack Gambassi

University of Utah men’s basketball player Marco Anthony (#9) slams the ball into the net over the head of Abilene Christian’s Stevie Smith (#13) during the game on Nov. 9, 2021 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on campus in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Jack Gambassi | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Ethan Pearce, Sports Editor

The University of Utah men’s basketball team grabbed a win in the first official game of the Craig Smith era. Utah beat Abilene Christian 70-56 to earn a hard-fought victory to begin the 2021-22 campaign.

“What an exciting day for the Runnin’ Utes, and all of our guys, and our staff,” Smith said. “In so many ways, it’s a dream come true … It was awesome to see our guys out there. These guys, they love the game obviously, but they put a lot of time into it … It was really awesome to see the people here, the fans here … It was pretty cool.”

The Utes jumped out to an early lead with a couple solid buckets. Abilene Christian struggled with Utah’s size, allowing multiple offensive rebounds and second chance points. Branden Carlson made it tough for the Wildcats to score inside, blocking a couple of shots early on.

As expected, both teams looked a little rough offensively in their first game of the season. Utah had a few more shots drop, getting their lead to 14-7. 

Smith experimented with a lot of different lineup combinations in the early going, with ten players seeing the court in the first nine minutes of the game. 

The passing was a little sloppy, there were a few offensive fouls called, and some easy shots rimmed out. But still, the lead was 20-11 as Utah continued to make scoring hard for the Wildcats. Carlson was dominant defensively in the first half, and when he was in the game Abilene Christian had to settle for many more contested jumpers than they would like. 

The Wildcats hit a few three pointers to trim the lead. Utah went a little cold offensively and got called for multiple fouls, which Smith did not like. 

Carlson picked up two fouls and Smith went to Dusan Mahorcic to fill in at center. He played well, getting to the free throw line five times and tallying five points, five rebounds and a steal in 10 minutes of play.

“He’s really come on here in the last two weeks or so,” said Smith. “His athleticism has improved. Dusan’s a smart guy. He knows the game, he’s got a good feel for the game.”

Utah led at the half, 34-27. They led 27-15 in the rebounding department, a welcome change from last season where rebounding was a struggle all year. Marco Anthony, listed at six-foot-five, tallied seven boards in the first half. Battin and Mahorcic each had five.

Abilene Christian started to make things scary with a run to begin the second half, but Carlson hit a three followed by a four-point play from David Jenkins Jr. to keep Utah up by a comfortable amount. 

The next few minutes were more of the same. The Wildcats hung around, but the Utes continued to make tough shots to keep them at arm’s length. Rollie Worster continued his strong showing with a nice move to get a layup to drop. With about eight minutes left, Worster had 12 points, six rebounds, and five assists as the Utes led 53-40.

Utah continued to get to the rim and get free throws, using that to balloon their lead to 60-42. Anthony continued to rebound well and threw down a huge dunk off a back cut that got the crowd on its feet. 

The game really slowed down near the end, becoming a free throw shooting contest due to both teams being in the bonus and multiple fouls being called on both sides. Carlson fouled out with two and a half minutes remaining, finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds.

Finally, after a long couple minutes and a whole lot of free throws, Utah got the victory, 70-56. It was a physical, hard-fought victory that moved the Utes to 1-0 on the young season.

Jenkins Jr. credited the team camaraderie and preparation for the win tonight.

“We felt good as a team. I think we came in prepared … We just have a bunch of guys who have no egos,” Jenkins Jr. said. “We hang out with each other off the court. That’s a big thing, it’s essential.”

Next up, Utah faces Sacramento State on Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. MST at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.


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