By rendering New Mexico's All-America candidate center Luc Longley a mere sideshow of his normal act, the University of Utah basketball team made it 40 days and 40 nights without a loss last night. The Utes went home from the Huntsman Center with a 65-53 win and an 11-game winning streak, dating back to Dec. 1, 1990, and Longley went home with just 11 points, seven rebounds, and a greater appreciation for how the beach felt at Normandy.
The Utes swarmed the 7-foot-2 Australian - who usually scores 20 points and 10 rebounds - all night long. Every time he looked up, there was the Tongan, 6-foot-10, 220-pound Paul Afeaki, leaning on him; or there was the tight end, 6-foot-8, 265-pound Walter Watts, leaning or him; or there was the Moose, 6-foot-6, 230-pound Sean Mooney, leaning on him.Afeaki and Watts - Utah's one-two punch at center - were not unexpected. Mooney, however, was. No way the Lobos and Longley could have seen him coming. In the Utes' first 14 games Mooney played a total of 18 minutes. For the season he had six rebounds and two points.
Yet there he was, late in the first half, checking into the game when Afeaki checked out with his third foul - joining Watts, who already had two fouls, on the Ute bench.
For the next four minutes and 47 seconds, until intermission, Mooney played the basketball of his life. He stuck to Longley like a boomerang. Every time Longley thought he'd gotten rid of him, there he was, back again.
The Lobo center didn't take another shot the rest of the half, and what had been a New Mexico lead, 25-24, when Mooney entered the game, turned into a 33-29 Utah advantage as the first half ended. The Utes were on their way to 14-1.
"Sean Mooney was a real inspiration for us," said Utah Coach Rick Majerus.
As mismatches go, it was the basketball equivalent of the Spanish Armada vs. the Sixth Fleet. There was Mooney, a walk-on - "some slug out of the intramural league," as Majerus put it - whose chief assignment is to make life miserable at practice for Afeaki and Watts, against Longley, a projected lottery pick in the next NBA draft.
Mooney was giving away eight inches, 35 pounds, and a difference in career scoring of just under 1,500 points.
"If I'd thought that it was Luc Longley, first round draft pick, I might have gotten nervous," he said.
The only thing Mooney consciously thought of as he entered the game at its most meaningful juncture was that he had a rare opportunity on his hands.
"You know you get that kind of chance maybe once or twice in your life," he said. "You don't want to blow it. You want to play your heart out."
A year ago, after transferring to Utah from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Mooney wasn't planning on playing college basketball again. He had gone to Willamette after graduating from Ogden High School in 1986. He excelled at basketball in high school, but of the instate schools only Weber State talked to him about playing college basketball - and they encouraged him to mature for a year or two at a junior college.
He accepted an academic scholarship to Willamette, a small liberal arts college, and played basketball there for three years.
At Utah, he was playing in the gym one afternoon when Kirk Earlywine, a graduate assistant coach, approached him and asked him if he might be interested in playing for the Ute varsity. Majerus was encouraging walk-ons to be a part of a "sixth man" position, with half-a-dozen non-scholarship players taking turns dressing for home games.
"I love the game. I said `sure,' " said Mooney.
He was impressive enough last season to be awarded a scholarship this season - with orders to show up for practice every day and pound unmercifully on Afeaki and Watts.
As they watched from the bench last night as Mooney leaned on Longley, Watts and Afeaki smiled smugly.
"That's what me and Walter have to put with all the time in practice,," said Afeaki.
"That's why we call him Moose."
"I love Sean Mooney," said Majerus. "I was Sean Mooney. Tonight he played my dream. He had four minutes of great time. He got us the win."
While a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee 20 years ago, Majerus walked on to the basketball team. Due in part to his memories of that experience, he implemented the "sixth man" program with the Utes.
"Coach Majerus always says he relates to me, that I play like he did," said Mooney. "He walked on at Marquette and came in and set a lot of screens and played defense. That's what I do."
"It will be hard for me to go to sleep tonight I'm so happy for Mooney," said Majerus.
As for Mooney, his forecast was different.
"I should sleep great," he said. "I got a lot more tired tonight than usual. Most games, I don't get too far off the bench."