If the measure of a good team is that it exploits any little flaw the opponent presents, Utah must be at least on its way to being good, despite Coach Rick Majerus' protestation that, "We have a long way to go."
Utah State had Utah on the ropes the whole first half Saturday night in the Spectrum, but the Utes used two brief Aggie failings for a 74-63 win.The first was a series of two quick fouls on Aggie Jay Goodman followed by a technical on USU Coach Kohn Smith to break an eight-point Aggie hold and wrest control to open the second half.
The other came late in the second period, after the Aggies had come back from four down for a one-point lead, 59-58; they were sailing again on a Goodman steal that was about to put them up by three. The score of the Holiday Bowl had just been announced, and it seemed like all Aggies were on a roll.
But, in one of the stranger moments of the season, Goodman collided with Ute Byron Wilson near the center jump circle, thought he heard a referee's whistle, stopped and watched the ball float away to the U.'s Tyrone Tate and then fouled Tate as he went in for a layup for a three-point play. Including Tate's three, Utah scored the next eight points, and the game was over.
Float with the basketball and sting like a bee.
The Utes move on to Western Athletic Conference play starting Thursday at Hawaii on the strength of an eight-game win streak and 11-1 record while the Aggies fell to 3-6 on a two-game losing streak as they await their Big West opener Wednesday in the Spectrum against Cal-Irvine.
"Boy, was that big," sighed Smith about the five-point turnaround play with 4:10 left in the game.
"It was a big basket for us," agreed Majerus, who didn't see the ball float away from Goodman because he was blocked out of the play. "We try to be opportunistic," Majerus added.
"It was my fault," said Goodman. "I heard a whistle. It was a big mistake on my part."
Goodman, however, wasn't the only one to apparently hear the whistle. "The ref asked me if I heard it; he didn't know if he blew it or not," said Goodman. "He heard it, too. He thought it was a shrill in the stands.
"I know better than that," Goodman admitted, wishing he'd kept dribbling.
"He was dribbling down and ran dead into my shoulder," said Wilson. "I don't know how he lost it because it made me spin around. The hand he was dribbling with ran into my shoulder."
The first turnaround started the second half. Utah State was up 37-29, having shot 21 free throws to Utah's five, thanks to the way Goodman and other Aggies were able to take the ball away and draw fouls on the physical Utes. Goodman shot 10 first-half free throws and had three assists and four steals while Allen Gordon had three steals in the first half.
Josh Grant, who had just two baskets the first half, made a baseline jumper plus a free throw to trim the lead to five :17 into the second half, Rich Jardine missed a layup - the Aggies missed 13 layups in the game - and Goodman picked up two sudden fouls. When a Kendall Youngblood five-footer was blocked and he was knocked to the floor, with Utah taking the ball the other way, Smith drew the technical, worth two Grant free throws, and Grant made a tipin-plus-free-throw to give Utah a 38-37 lead. Grant had eight of Utah's first nine second-half points and finished up with a game-high 20.
"We started the second half off just terrible," said Goodman.
But perhaps it was some adjustment on Utah's part, too. Majerus said he addressed at halftime what he thought was selfish play on the Utes' part. That accounted for Grant's slight point total, he said, because he didn't get the ball much the first half.
And Grant said he heard people talking about his four points and determined to do more.
"They played us good defensively," Grant said. "They switched everything the first half and shook us a little. The second half, we figured out their switching and got our motion going."
The second half, Utah shot 29 free throws (many at the end) and Utah State 14, the Aggies kept missing layins while the Utes got nearly all of their second-half baskets from underneath and Utah stirred itself defensively, particularly against Goodman. Goodman scored 14 the first half and ended with 15 points. "It was a big thing for us to take him out of his game," said Majerus, who'd run guard after guard at him with no success in the first 20 minutes.
The Utes finally wore him down, and, "They called me for ticky-tack fouls," asserted Goodman, who fouled out.
Wilson and center Paul Afeaki finished with 13 each for the Utes, Afeaki shooting 6-for-7 and was particularly effective keeping the Utes in the game the first half. For Utah State, Jardine and Youngblood each scored 17. Grant and Youngblood had eight rebounds each.