Ho-hum. It was business as usual for the University of Utah Runnin' Utes Thursday night. All they did was whip the nationally ranked Wyoming Cowboys 90-83 right there in Laramie, treat Reggie Slater like he was just another gym rat, ignore a vicious crowd and run their winning streak to 13 games. No big deal.
Afterward, the Ute locker room was about as loud and crazy as a library. There was little celebrating. The Utes dressed quietly and quickly and drove off to Air Force, their next item of business.Standing just outside the locker room, Rick Majerus, the Utes' head coach and chief party pooper, was steadfastly refusing to call his team good, again. Never mind that he had spent the week calling Wyoming "the elite of the league," and a "Top 10 team." Never mind that the Utes are now in sole possession of first place in the Western Athletic Conference with a 5-0 record, or that they sport a 16-1 overall record and already have equaled their win total for all of last season. Never mind that the Utes are becoming an overnight sensation.
"Nobody on the team really says anything about the record or the streak," said guard Craig Rydalch, looking around the locker room. "It's this way all the time. There's no talking about it on the bus, or at practice. We talk more about the Persian Gulf. We just come to the gym and leave it there."
"It was a nice win," said Majerus. "It's just one win. It doesn't count for two. It wasn't any more important than any other game."
Uh-huh. Leave it to assistant coach Joe Cravens to give the win its due. "Wyoming is the best team in the league, and we just beat them on the road," he said walking off the court.
Three games ago, it was Cravens who said, "We'll know how good we are after these next three games." Since then the Utes have handled New Mexico, 25th-ranked UTEP and 25th-ranked/13-2 Wyoming - supposedly the best of the Western Athletic Conference. What are we to think now of the Utes, who were expected to finish among the bottom three of the league? "It is kind of amazing," said forward Josh Grant. "I don't know how to explain it."
"I'll tell you what it is," said Majerus. "It's characterized by the word team. We just kind of fish around."
On Thursday, the Utes fished around for a half, stunk up the place, fell behind by 10 points, then rallied with a near perfect game of basketball in the second half.
It was only the second time in 12 years they have won in Laramie, and by the time it was finished, Josh Grant had 23 points - 16 in the second half - and 9 rebounds. Rydalch and Jimmy Soto - both reserves - had 17 and 15 points, respectively. Only guard Maurice Alexander - who had 32 points and 8 rebounds - kept Wyoming close in the second half.
And where was Slater, the future NBA star? The Utes held him to 6 points, 5 rebounds and 2-for-9 shooting - the worst game of his career.
"We ran the whole bench out there and ground him down," said Majerus.
Walter Watts, Paul Afeaki, Grant, M'Kay McGrath, Barry Howard, even walk-on Sean Mooney took turns leaning on Slater. In the process, Watts fouled out with still 12 minutes to play, but he was barely missed. Before the game, Majerus told Watts' backup, Afeaki, "We cannot win without you tonight. It's time for you to step forward."
Afeaki, still wearing a flak jacket to protect bruised ribs, responded with 11 points (5 for 6 shooting), 4 rebounds and 2 blocks in just 21 minutes of play.
"We just got out-gutted and out-toughed," said Wyoming coach Benny Dees. "We got our tails kicked."
I have to take my hat off to Utah. They made the big plays, and they are better than we are."
And the Utes did it in hostile territory. Some 12,867 fans turned out for Thursday's showdown between the only two remaining unbeaten teams in the WAC, and they made themselves heard. Even before the game began, they were taunting the Utes. During the game, they chanted obscenties obscenities and threw objects onto the floor.
Grant, worried that his young teammates would be rattled by the crowd, surveyed the scene during pre-game introductions, smiled and told the Utes, "Let's have fun. This is what it's all about."
But the first half was anything but fun, largely because of one simple problem: they couldn't shoot. Whether they were shooting from the foul line (4 of 11), three-point line (2 of 8) or the field (13 of 36), the results were the same. By halftime, they were down 38-32.
"Coach did some screaming at halftime," said Grant.
The Utes were a different team in the second half. They were trailing 47-40, when they began a 13-0 streak to take the lead for good. For 12 minutes, Wyoming, a wonderfully talented but wildly undisciplined team, made just two field goals. The Cowboys panicked and began heaving 25-foot bricks. The Utes calmly continued to work for good shots and turnovers. During one five-minute stretch, Grant owned the game. He scored nine consecutive points for the Utes, then intercepted a pass that set up a trey by Rydalch, which gave Utah a 65-55 lead with 5:49 remaining.
Down the stretch, the Utes repeatedly quieted a hysterical crowd by making pressure baskets. Three late treys by Alexander and several missed foul shots by the Utes cut the gap to 84-80 with 47 seconds left, but they could get no closer.
Before the game, Dees had said, "If (the Utes) win, then they're just about out of reach (in the WAC race)." That might be overstating things, but the Utes served notice Thursday that they are a real force this season.