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SALT LAKE CITY — With 18 minutes left to play in a road contest against USC, Branden Carlson had 21 points to lead all scores as he willed his team back.
Utah trailed by 5 points at the halftime break, and Carlson scored the first 4 points of what was a 7-0 Runnin' Utes run to open up the second half to retake a narrow lead after trailing for much of the first half. But outside of Carlson, who returned to the roster after a late scratch against UCLA on Thursday due to an illness, Utah's roster went stagnant on offense.
The Utes made one shot out of its next 13 field goal attempts after its run, lost the rebounding battle, and USC built up a double-digit lead to put distance on Utah. The Trojans shared the ball and found open shots to break a Utah defense that has traditionally been good enough to limit long scoring stretches.
USC used that run midway though the second half to pull away from Utah and to claim a 71-56 win at home. It also gave the Utes its third-straight conference loss after starting 5-0.
"We've got to do a better job," Utah head coach Craig Smith said. "We've got to stay disciplined and do what we need to do. I thought they were a little quicker to the ball. Really proud of Branden Carlson tonight after not playing against UCLA and sicker than sick. Thought he showed a lot of grit and determination and toughness — really carried us in that first half."
Though Carlson had already scored 21 points early in the second half, the veteran center didn't score anymore points on his 8-of-12 shooting. He added nine rebounds and three assists in the loss, and was seemingly the sole driver to Utah's offensive production.
The rest of the team was just 13-of-49 (26.5%) on a night. Rollie Worster was the only other Utah player to score in double figures and finished with 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting, two rebounds and one assist. The team shot 25% from the field in the second half and finished with a meager 34% shooting in the end.
"I thought BC wore down, and we didn't have an answer," Smith said, while crediting his veteran center. "At the end of the day, when Marco Anthony, Gabe Madsen and Lazar Stefanovic go 4-for-29 as three guards, and in the minutes those guys get, I mean, it's gonna be difficult for us to win."
Utah (12-7, 5-3) had six 3-pointers in the first half but only two in the second half. Utah was also outrebounded 41-29 and gave up 19 second-chance points — 11 of which came in the second half — to the Trojans. To add insult to injury, Utah finished the game making only one of its last eight field goals and had 2 points in the final seven minutes of game time.
Boogie Ellis paced the Trojans (13-5, 5-2) to a win with 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including two early 3-pointers in the game to keep Utah from building up a bigger lead. Utah took an early lead behind an energized team that limited turnovers, but Ellis and the Trojans found success from deep to limit Utah's attempt to stay ahead.
USC (13-5, 5-2) is one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country, but Utah allowed the Trojans to shoot 44% from deep on 7-of-16 shooting.
"Defense travels, tough mindedness travels, and we weren't at the level we need to be in," Smith said. "Some of that's us, but you've got to give them credit. They made some plays, and that's what good teams do."