Attention national pollsters:
Just wanted to alert you to a growing new threat out here in the West. The University of Utah - the Walter Mitty of the hoop set - is tied with Wyoming for first place in the Western Athletic Conference with a 3-0 league record. No one wants to take the Utes seriously, but they keep winning. On Thursday night they defeated New Mexico, the WAC favorite, 65-53 in the Huntsman Center.Remember Rick Majerus, the driven genuius-type who coached little Ball State to a 29-3 season two years ago? Well, the Majerus Majic - hey, that's not bad - is working again, for Utah. The Utes are 14-1 - two wins shy of their win total for all of last season - and so far they've answered every excuse not to take them seriously. They beat Oregon and Wichita State to prove they could handle non-patsy opponents. They beat Hawaii and San Diego State to prove they could win on the road. They beat New Mexico to prove they are real contenders and not pretenders in the WAC title race.
That's 11 consecutive victories for the Utes. You might want to consider them when you go to the polls next week.
Thursday night's win over New Mexico was big, and no one pretended otherwise. Not even the grand party pooper, Majerus, who was actually seen pumping his fists and jumping up and down in front of the bench. Of course so was everyone else in the joint.
The Utes used three centers to shut down 7-foot-2 center Luc Longley. Josh Grant and Phil Dixon handled the Ute scoring duties, with Grant going for 22 points after throwing up some early bricks and Dixon getting his standard three treys and 13 points. And there it was: Utah, picked to finish among the bottom three in the WAC, had defeated New Mexico, the preseason favorite to win the league title (but now 11-4/1-2).
"What a game," gushed Majerus afterward. "What a game."
It was close all the way, and it might have gone to the wire if the Lobos hadn't gone comatose at the foul line (4 of 12 for the night, zilch down the stretch). Trailing 57-51 with five minutes to play, the Lobos sent Longley, Rob Robbins and Jimmy Taylor to the foul line consecutively - every one of them a 77 percent free throw shooter or better - and they each missed the front end of a one-and-one. There goes a game-tying six points.
"That didn't help," said UNM coach Dave Bliss. "We're in a great position to make a move. We have our three best foul shooters at the line."
Nor did it help that Longley, who had been averaging 18.9 points per game (23.6 in his last five games), managed only 11 against Utah. The Ute plan was this: take the ball to Longley and get him in foul trouble; lean on him with the tag team of Walter Watts, Paul Afeaki and walk-on Sean Mooney. The plan worked with Mooney contributing 5 valuable minutes at the end of the first half with Watts and Afeaki in foul trouble.