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SALT LAKE CITY — Branden Carlson didn't need to say it, but he was out to prove he was the best 7-foot center on the court on Thursday night.
And after just one half of play, it was clear that Carlson had succeeded in his job. The senior closed out the first half with a 10-0 run of his own, which included back-to-back 3-pointers, two made free throws and a hammer dunk, to give the home team an 8-point lead and Carlson with 21 points at the halftime break.
Carlson didn't miss a shot the entire first half.
Though his second half wasn't as dominant in terms of points scored, Carlson finished with a career- and game-high 28 points and eight rebounds en route to a 77-63 Utah win over the visiting Washington State Cougars at the Huntsman Center.
Carlson went 11-of-12 from the floor, which included 3-of-4 from 3-point range, and became the last Utah player since Britton Johnson in 2002 to score 28 points or more while shooting 90% or more from the field. In the end, it was another career night for the veteran Utah player that continues to lead the team each night.
"He has a different look to him right now," Utah head coach Craig Smith said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence, but he's playing as a leader. I'm so proud of him and where he's come from and how far he's come. And now you get to this point, he's doing everything in every single way that he can. So he's a high level dude."
For a majority of the first half, Utah (13-7, 6-3 Pac-12) played in sync and shot the ball well (55% from the field) to build up a 10-point lead over the visiting Cougars, who were without leading scorer TJ Bamba with a hand injury for the third straight game. But for a stretch, Utah settled for bad shots from behind the perimeter and let Washington State creep back into the game.
The Cougars went on a 12-2 run over a four-minute stretch and tied the game up 29-all with 2:54 left to play in the first half, but Smith went to his big-big lineup of Carlson and Keba Keita, and it worked wonders.
The two posed a defensive challenge to Washington State (9-11, 4-5 Pac-12), who often let Carlson go to work — whether as a stretch center or down in the post where he battled fellow 7-footer Mouhamed Gueye and won time and time again. Utah had a 10-point differential in the post in the first half, thanks in large part to Carlson's dominance.
BRANDEN CARLSON IS DOING THE MOST! 😤— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) January 20, 2023
Carlson has 21 points, is 8-8 from the field, 3-3 behind the arc, and 2-2 from the line.
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Utah built up a 14-point lead early in the second half, but Washington State slowly chipped away at the lead as Utah, again, settled for bad shots and got out of sync with Carlson off the floor. Washington State cut Utah's lead down to five with just under 10 minutes left to play, but Gabe Madsen righted the ship as he came off a screen set by Carlson and drained a 3-pointer.
The Runnin' Utes then built up another double-digit lead for a long stretch, but Washington State never quite.
Though Carlson had the all-around better night, Gueye went to work in the second half to keep his team in contention. The sophomore center had 7 points in the first half, but finished with a team-high team-high 20 points and evens rebounds. Gueye took some time to heat up but was what kept Utah from pulling away for good in the second half.
Gueye was joined in double figures by Jabe Mullins, who had 11 points and four rebounds, and Justin Powell, who finished with 10 points, four rebounds, and four assists.
"It just felt like we're so close to blowing it open, but that's hard to do at this level, it's hard to do against them — they muck it up," Smith said. "We didn't help ourselves ... but we weathered the storm."
Carlson was the floor leader, but Utah finished the night with 20 assists on 31 field goals and had only eight turnovers on the night. It's the type of play Smith said Utah needs to play like to have more success this season. Utah was outrebounded by one but dominated Washington State in the post, where the Utes outscored the Cougars 42-22 on the night.
"I think at the end of the day, when we play like that and share the ball the way we did felt turnovers, it's huge for us," said Rollie Worster, who finished with 14 points, seven assists and four rebounds.
Gabe Madsen added 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting from 3-point range in the win for the Utes, and was a key player down the stretch to stop a Washington State attempt to cut into Utah's lead.