It was a full minute after the game had ended Saturday night, but no one in the Huntsman Center was leaving yet. The Utes had just defeated nationally ranked Texas-El Paso 67-60, and Ute fans - 15,516 strong, the fifth largest crowd in school history - were still standing in front of their seats, applauding and cheering. For once, there had been no beating an early path to the exits, no beating the crowds to the parking lot. They were simply taking in the smell of victory. Another victory.
It's been 10 years since they've backed such a team. Why not enjoy it?Especially this latest victory, which came against a long-time nemesis, and in the strangest of ways. Josh Grant, Phil Dixon and Byron Wilson - Utah's top shooters - were reduced to cheerleading during crunch time. On this night, the Ute heroes were guys named Jimmy Soto and Barry Howard - the team's ninth and 10th players off the bench - and reserve Craig Rydalch, Walter Watts and Tyrone Tate (see Benson column).
After blowing a 10-point lead late in the first half, the Utes fell behind by three with eight minutes to play in the game, but they rallied and then held on down the stretch.
Soto - the 5-foot-9 daredevil, complete with a bum shoulder that nearly kept him out of the game - finished with 16 points and 5 rebounds. Howard had 6 points and 5 rebounds - all of them coming during a crucial second-half stretch. Watts had 10 points and 12 rebounds.
And The Streak is still alive. Let's take this from the top one more time. The Utes have won 12 consecutive games to run their record to 15-1 overall and 4-0 in Western Athletic Conference play. Ranked 26th by Associated Press at the start of the week, they seem a good bet to crack the national rankings for the first time in 10 years. Of course, to a man they all say they're not thinking about any such thing - "Coach won't let us," said Rydalch - but everyone else is.
"Utah has a fine team," said UTEP coach Don Haskins. "They deserve to be ranked in the Top 20 . . . If they were back East, they'd be ranked third."
Rick Majerus, Utah's workaholic coach, predictably pooh-poohed all such talk, but he was inspired enough that he gave his team Sunday off. Then it's back to work for yet another big WAC showdown, this time with 14-2/3-0 Wyoming Thursday night in Laramie.
In the meantime, the Miners will go home and practice shooting free throws. They came to the state Thursday ranked 25th nationally and riding an eight-game winning streak that included a win over Georgetown. They left it on a two-game losing streak, with Haskins mumbling something about playing on the road. TheMiners missed the front end of four one-and-one foul shots in the final seven minutes (and 16 of 27 for the night).
But then the Utes were having their own problems. Their top players were all missing in action. Wilson, still nursing a bruised rear end, lasted 10 minutes. Dixon was nursing a sore ankle, and lasted 16 minutes. They got two points apiece. Then there was Grant, the team's top scorer and rebounder. He was in foul trouble most of the night. With 4:10 to go and Utah holding a precarious 57-52 lead, he finally fouled out.
"We knew we'd have to take up the slack without him," said Watts.
But they already had been. Grant made only 4 of 11 shots, 9 points. "He didn't have it tonight," said Majerus. So there it was, Grant, Dixon and Wilson - normally worth 37 points - totaled 13.
Majerus hinted that it might have been fatigue. "I worked them too hard Friday," he lamented before the game. "I tend to get carried away."
But as they have been wont to do lately, the Utes found a way to win. They took a 9-2 lead, then promptly fell apart. UTEP ran off 12 unanswered points. The pattern was set. The Utes opened a 30-20 lead with 3:03 remaining in the half, but the Miners ran off eight consecutive points to make it 30-28 at halftime. They ran off eight more early in the second half to take a five-point lead.
The Ute offense was falling all over itself. "We've worked this defense to death, and we've lost our offense," said Majerus, whose team committed 19 turnovers and shot 47 percent.
Howard and Soto came to the rescue. During one stretch Howard scored all six of the Utes' points, then made a critical rebound and a deadly pass to Paul Afeaki for a score to tie the game 41-all.
Soto, who separated his left shoulder against New Mexico on Thursday, alternately sat on the bench with a heating pad on the shoulder, and dashed recklessly up and down the court. He scored off the break to put Utah on top 45-41, but the Miners, led by Mark McCall (14 points), scored seven straight points.
Then it was Watts' turn. With a defender draped over his arms, he scored inside and hit the free throw to put Utah on top for good, 52-50 with 7:21 remaining.
The Miners kept trying to rally, but someone always stopped them. Utah was up by three when Rydalch sank an 18-footer. Soto hit a half-hook in traffic with 1:55 left to make it 61-55. Tate and Soto made four foul shots in the final minute and Tate hit a dunk at the buzzer for good measure. It seemed an appropriate way to end the game and a memorable week.