The University of Utah men’s basketball team dropped a road matchup with the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday evening. Utah competed with the No. 6 ranked team in the nation for much of the night, but ultimately ran out of gas in the second half to fall to 1-6 in conference play. They’re 8-9 on the season, the first time they’ve been below .500 overall.

Utah kept pace with the Wildcats throughout the first half, keeping a lead until right before halftime. Arizona looked sloppy without point guard Kerr Kriisa, who missed the game. The Utes controlled the pace of the game, slowing down the Wildcats offense and playing heavily in the halfcourt. Arizona sped it up to close the half, and that’s also how their lead ballooned in the second.

“I thought we played really really well in the first half and early in the second half,” said head coach Craig Smith. “I thought they wore us down … I thought we got better this week, I thought we got better tonight … we gave ourselves some chances.”

Utah was without Branden Carlson yet again, which has been a theme this season. Carlson has been in and out of the lineup with a variety of injuries and illnesses, this time after an appendectomy last week. Carlson’s defense was missed, with Arizona getting a lot of easy cuts to the basket for dunks and layups. That was how they made their comeback before halftime.

Utah ended up getting blitzed down the stretch of the second half. They didn’t have enough to keep up with Arizona after they were able to get it going. The offense didn’t get enough cooking and the defense couldn’t keep up with the potent attack. They gave themselves some confidence with the way they played early, but nothing much else.

Utah is in the middle of the toughest stretch of their season. They’ll face Arizona State on Monday in a game that was rescheduled following COVID-19 issues with the Sun Devils. That compresses an already brutal stretch of games into even fewer days. Utah returns home next weekend to face UCLA and USC, who are both top-10 squads.

“It’s a big boy basketball league,” Smith said.

Big boy basketball indeed. Utah desperately needs a win after dropping their fifth in a row tonight. The Pac-12 is no joke, and the Utes have to get themselves back on the right foot if they want to have any hope of competing. This team has talent, but it hasn’t quite gelled to this point in the year with all they’ve had to deal with. They’re without Carlson for the time being, but that’s no excuse. It’s the hardest schedule they’ll have this season, now it’s time to rise to the challenge.

In more positive news, Utah picked up a commitment from Wilguens Exacte Jr., which he announced on his Instagram during the game. He’s listed at six-foot-five and originally from Canada. He’s been playing for the NBA Academy Latin America and will join the Utes next season.

Utah is back in action on Monday against the Arizona State Sun Devils.

 

e.pearce@dailyutahchronicle.com

@e_pearce_

@splashcitynba