On its way to a certain national ranking when the polls come out Tuesday, the University of Utah clearly displayed one thing in Saturday night's 67-60 win over No. 25-ranked UTEP: This is not a team short on pinch-hitters.
Every time the Miners, who were obviously not in a good mood after their 16-point loss to BYU Thursday, went on a mini-run that looked like it was sure to end the Utes' winning streak - 11 coming in, 12 going out - relief would come rolling off the Utah bench.Reserve guard Jimmy Soto led the Utes with 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the floor; reserve forward Barry Howard chipped in six points and five rebounds, almost all at once; and reserve guard Craig Rydalch added five points and three assists in addition to annoying UTEP forward Johnny Melvin to the point that he started throwing elbows in the second half instead of shots.
"We're like the little Dutch boy," said Ute Coach Rick Majerus, who got 36 points out of his starters and 31 points out of his reserves. "We keep plugging fingers in the dike."
Despite team scoring and rebounding leader Josh Grant's off night - nine points, five rebounds, six turnovers and five fouls - and despite limited offense, and playing time, for usual three-point hitter Phil Dixon, who had a mere two points on free throws, the Utes rolled to their 12th win in a row and to a record of 15-1.
Actually, rolled may not be the right word. Clutched and clawed was more like it. The Utes had to dig out of hole after hole.
They especially looked to be in serious trouble with eight minutes left in the game and the Miners holding a three-point lead.
Then they went on a 10-2 run, fueled by starting center Walter Watts, and held the Miners at bay to the finish.
The big shots down the stretch were by Rydalch and Soto. Rydalch with an 18-footer at 2:51 that made it 59-54, and Soto with a 10-footer at 1:56 that stretched the lead to six, 61-55.
Soto, the smallest player on the floor, had a hard time missing, which was odd, since he missed practice on Friday and was questionable for the UTEP game. In Thursday's win over New Mexico he hurt his left shoulder and nursed it for 48 hours by not using it.
Since it was not his shooting shoulder, he thought he might be able to play.
"Once I got warmed up I felt OK," said Soto, who used a heating pad whenever he was on the bench.
When he hit his first three shots from the field, he felt even better.
"I just felt like I was going to have a good game," he said after matching his career scoring high in addition to pulling down five rebounds and handing out two assists.
Howard's six-point, five-rebound contribution wasn't as prolific as Soto's, but it was more explosive. With the Utes trailing by three, 36-33, early in the second half, he proceeded to score six straight points in the next two minutes. Then, for an encore he got a rebound and delivered a pass to Paul Afeaki on the baseline that Afeaki turned into a basket, a foul and a three-point play.
"We have a deep enough bench on this team that anyone is capable of coming in and doing the job," said Howard. "When your turn is called, you want to be ready."
Rydalch said the team's philosophy is "If you're open, take it; if you're not, don't. It doesn't matter who you are. The same rule applies to everyone."
Hence, when Rydalch found himself open at the three-point line with 2:51 to play, he felt free to take the shot.
"We play a No. 1 team vs. a No. 2 team in practice every day," Rydalch continued. "Sometimes the No. 2 team wins. What we know as a team is there a lot of guys here who can play."
Majerus gave them all the day off today - a rest in anticipation of the Ute's next outing, Thursday night at Wyoming. That should be Utah's first appearance as a nationally ranked team since 1981.
"They deserve to be ranked in the top 20," said UTEP Coach Don Haskins. "If they were back East, they'd be ranked third."
"If it happens (the ranking), it will feel good," said Rydalch. "But it really doesn't prove anything. All anybody's talking about around here is winning the WAC."
And all the WAC is talking about is that stopping Utah means guarding everybody on the floor - and the bench.