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SALT LAKE CITY — The situation was already bad for Utah's depth coming into a midweek matchup to start Pac-12 play.
With only eight scholarship players active for the late game Wednesday night in Los Angeles, Utah suffered another key injury to decimate an already depleted roster.
Midway through the first half, in which Utah was attacking the basket hard and trailed No. 20 USC just 16-14, starting center Branden Carlson, who is the team's leading scorer, fell to the ground and immediately grabbed his right ankle. Utah head coach Craig Smith walked over and looked defeated and frustrated in the same moment as his team's depth fell before his eyes.
With Carlson off the court, USC immediately jumped out on a 9-0 run to take the then-largest lead of the game (7 points) before Utah briefly battled back and kept the game close. But USC was just too good, and the Trojans took advantage of Utah to earn a 93-73 win.
It was all just too much for the Utes (5-2) in their first conference game of the season and first true road contest of the year. Utah shot just 30% from the field in the first half as USC (7-0) limited and contested every shot attempt as the more aggressive team that features the sixth-best defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
On the other end of the floor, USC went to work and outscored Utah 30-16 in the post with Carlson out and unable to combat the Trojans' bigs. Utah was already without backup center Dusan Mahorcic, who suffered an injury to his right knee against BYU Saturday.
With the two Utah bigs out, Lahat Thioune, who played limited minutes before Wednesday's contest, was left as the last remaining option at center without truly going to a small-ball unit. Thioune finished the night with 2 points and 10 rebounds as the team's replacement.
USC shot 62% from the field in the opening half and was led in scoring by Boogie Ellis' 16 points, including three 3-pointers, to put distance on Utah. If it wasn't a 9-0 run midway through the first half, it was a 13-2 run to finish the half to take a 20-point at the halftime break. Ellis finished the game with 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-7 from the 3-point line, in the win.
The only thing left to see in the second half was the final whistle blown to put an end to a rough night for the Utes. Or so it seemed.
Despite the odds stacked against them — in more ways than one — Utah battled to the bitter end and managed to stay even with the Trojans in the second half and eventually cut the deficit to as low as 14 points. Utah forced the Trojans to the free-throw line multiple times, where they shot a dreadful 12-of-22 in the second half — 14-of-25 for the game.
Isaiah Mobley led the team with 21 points and 13 rebounds for the double-double. Max Agbonkpolo had 16 points and four rebounds, Drew Peterson had 11 points and eight rebounds, and Ethan Anderson added 10 points to round out the team's scoring at home.
And though the shots didn't fall with regularity at the charity stripe, USC did just enough to maintain its first-half lead and keep distance on a never-give-up Utah team. Much of their scoring, again, came in the post as the Trojans outscored the Utes 54-26 down low.
The second half turned into the Both Gach show, who put on a career night after having only 4 points at the halftime break.
Gach, who has struggled to get into a rhythm since being cleared by the NCAA to play this season, led the Utes in scoring in the loss with 28 points and four rebounds, a career- and season-high mark for the junior guard. David Jenkins Jr. had 21 points and four rebounds, and Riley Battin added 10 points and three rebounds in the loss.
Utah returns home Sunday to welcome California to the Huntsman Center at 3 p.m. MT. The game will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.