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SALT LAKE CITY — Not every game was going to be perfect for Utah this season.
Against an Idaho State team that ranked No. 334 in KenPom ratings ahead of a Monday night matchup at the Huntsman Center, Utah looked like the lesser team for much of the night. But Utah weathered the storm to pull away from the visiting Bengals to earn a 70-58 win.
"The blowout wins are nice, but it's not gonna make you that much better — you've gotta fight through a little bit," said Gabe Madsen, who finished with a career-high eight rebounds. "It's good to get a little bit of a challenge and fight through it and come up with a win. It's not always pretty, but it's good for the team to get a little adversity right away."
Utah lacked rhythm, consistency, and an overall chemistry on the floor — to say nothing of some poor shot attempts that hurt the team's ability to fight back in a game that shouldn't have been close. Idaho State, however, went through a long stretch where shot after shot dropped, and the Bengals erased a one-time 12-point Utah lead to a 1-point game.
The only thing that seemed to slow down the Bengals was a 1-of-11 stretch and a nearly four-minute scoring drought late in the game. Veteran center Branden Carlson took advantage and spearheaded a 6-0 run that put some distance on Idaho State. But the scrappy Bengals continued to fight to the end.
"In the first half, I think we had some trouble playing a little bit connected. I think we were just kind of taking some bad shots — shots that we don't normally take," Carlson said. "And then in second half, we came out ready to go and then they just kind of got back into it and they just wouldn't quit.
"They're a good team, they're a tough team, and they're gonna play hard the whole time, and so we've got to give it to them. But we've just got to keep working and doing our thing."
Utah ended the game on a 9-0 run to give the home team a double-digit lead and put to sleep a feisty Bengals team. It was an early test in what Utah head coach Craig Smith called a "grinder" of a game, but a "solid win."
"We found a way to win when things were not going well, and that's the first time this team has faced that," Smith said. "Obviously, you want to win in a certain way and do all that stuff, but I do think it says something for our team grinding it out, and so at the end of the day, those games are good for you. We're going to learn a lot from this."
Carlson led the team with a career-high 26 points, nine rebounds and four blocks on a night when no other Utah player scored in double digits. While Utah as a team had a rough night, Carlson had a dominant performance, including a posterized dunk with just under four minutes left to play to push Utah's lead up to 8.
"I just think my teammates really put me in a position to be able to do that," Carlson said. "We had some plays-calls for me to get that, but I just think a lot of that was I'm in the right position and it's a little dump off, dunk or whatever it may be — unselfish plays by my teammates."
Conversely, Idaho State had three players in double figures and was led by Kolby Lee, who had 15 points and four rebounds, in the loss. Brock Mackenzie had 13 points and Miguel Tomley added 11 points and four rebounds.