The March of the Amazin' Runnin' Utes goes on - and on and on and on. On a snowy night in Colorado Springs Saturday, the Utes overcame fatigue, flu, dislocated fingers, an ever-changing lineup, a shooting slump and a second-half deficit to claim yet another victory.
This time the University of Utah, ranked 22nd in the country, defeated lowly Air Force Academy 57-47. Count them. That's 14th consecutive victories - the second longest winning streak in school history and two shy of the school record.Saturday's game matched the best and worst of the Western Athletic Conference, but for much of the night it was difficult to tell which was which. The Utes trailed by four at halftime, but with 11:53 left in the game and the score tied, they made a decisive 11-4 run.
Thus, the Utes, owners of a glittering 17-1 record, maintained their hold on first place in the WAC, with a 6-0 league mark. Next up: a two-game homestand against Colorado State and Air Force (again). But first, some rest.
After Saturday's game, Utah coach Rick Majerus forbade his players from talking to the media. "They need to rest," he said. Reminding his players to wear their hoods, he hurried them out the door and back to their hotel.
"Half the team is sick," said Majerus. "We're just not strong."
Majerus will give his players today off - except for Byron Wilson, Phil Dixon, Anthony Williams, Larry Cain and Barry Howard. "They need the work," said the coach. "We've got to get in better condition for the El Paso-New Mexico trip (in two weeks)."
Majerus' concerns about his team's strength are not without reason. On Saturday night he was forced to substitute "more than ever," he said, because of fatigue, injuries, illness and Air Force's perplexing defense. "I was fishing for the right combination and trying to keep the lineup fresh," he said. Ten players played 13 or more minutes. Ralph McKinney, whose only action this season had been cleanup duty at the end of routs, played in both halves and totaled 13 minutes.
"I had no one else left," said Majerus.
Majerus also played the last eight minutes of the game without a center. Walter Watts was in foul trouble and Paul Afeaki was on the bench having a dislocated finger reset.
The Utes were having troubles enough with their opponent, even if the homecourt advantage (attendance: 1,719) was hardly a factor. "I was more worried about this game than any to date," said Majerus.
Huh? Worry about a team that is 6-9 overall and winless in four league games? "They have a tough style of play," he explained. "They milk the clock, spread you out and let you beat yourself."
The Falcons, annually one of the league's worst teams, always give the Utes problems with their conservative style of play. In their previous nine meetings in Colorado Springs, Air Force had won four games and lost three others by one point.
On Saturday, the Falcons' sticky man-to-man defense and slow-down half-court offense played a big part in Utah's poor 33 percent shooting. Josh Grant, who had a game-high 14 points, made 2 of 9 shots. Craig Rydalch was 0 of 4. Jimmy Soto, bothered by the flu, was 2 of 6.
The Falcons led 24-20 at halftime, but their lead lasted only four minutes into the second half. The best free throw shooting team in the country, the Falcons made just 16 of 26 foul shots. They also shot 34 percent from the field. What's more, their rough style of play caught up with them. Four players fouled out, including their leading scorer, Chris Lowry (3 points).
"Utah is a good team, but we should have won and beaten the (22nd) best team in the nation," said Air Force guard Charles Smith.
Grant made two pairs of free throws to put Utah on top for the first time since early in the game, with 16:45 left to play. Afeaki made an off-balance half-hook and drew a foul. His free throw gave Utah a 32-28 lead. The Falcons rallied to tie the game at 34, but the Utes bolted again.
Dixon and Wilson buried two big three-point shots - the Utes' only treys of the night - to open a five-point lead. The rest of the game was a foul-shooting contest. In the final six minutes of play, the Utes made just one field goal. That's because they were sent to the foul line nine times.
"Air Force plays pretty good defense," said Grant. "They took us out of our stuff early just by switching up and playing a lot of different defenses. We got a lot of quick shots, and that's not the way we play well."
"It was a hard game," said Rydalch. "We didn't come to play. It was just one of those games, I guess."
"Air Force played well," said Majerus. "They made us look bad."