With 34.8 seconds remaining in Thursday night's Utah-Colorado State game, the situation for the streaking 17th-ranked Utes didn't look good. Sure they held a two-point lead on their home court, but the Rams had the ball and plenty of time to work for a game-winning three-point shot. Good-bye ranking, good-bye win streak, good-bye national press, good-bye first place.
As the Utes broke from their huddle to return to the court following a timeout, Josh Grant called to teammate/buddy Jimmy Soto. "Hey, Jimmy, come here," he said. Then, bending to get close to Soto's ear, Grant told him a secret. "I'm going to get a steal."Moments later Grant did just that. With some 17 seconds remaining, CSU's Mark Meredith lobbed a short pass to Doug Larson at midcourt. Grant, standing behind Larson, reached out with a long right arm and knocked the ball away, then raced up the court alone for a dunk that clinched a 55-51 victory.
So say it again. The Surprisin' Utes are still rolling along. 15 consecutive wins (one short of a 78-year-old school record). An eye-catching 18-1 record. A perfect 7-0 league record. A hold on first place in the Western Athletic Conference. Don't wake them till it's over.
"Josh made some big, big plays down the stretch," said Utah coach Rick Majerus.
Those plays wouldn't have been necessary if the Utes hadn't committed two blatant turnovers in the final 90 seconds of play. They were holding a seemingly safe 53-48 lead when they went into a clock-killing, four-corner spread offense that the Utes call "Butter."
"We run the clock down to seven seconds, and then set up for (either of) two plays," said guard Craig Rydalch. "Actually, it's been productive for us."
But not this time. The Utes never got off a shot. They milked the clock to seven seconds, then Grant fell while trying to drive from the top of the key. The Rams took off with the loose ball, and guard Lynn Tryon, who had made just 2 of 11 shots, buried a trey from the corner to make it 53-51 with 1:01 remaining.
The Utes tried the Butter play again. This time point guard Tyrone Tate flipped a pass to Soto in the corner - but Soto was long gone, having cut inside. Another turnover.
The Utes called timeout.
On the CSU bench, Coach Boyd Grant decided to go for the win. "We were going for three," he would say later. "We were going to penetrate and kick it out for three."
Meanwhile, on the Utah bench Majerus was reminding his players that they had free fouls to give, that they weren't in the bonus situation yet. "I told them to take chances and go for the steal," said Majerus. "If we fouled, that was fine."
Grant, of course, was thinking steal all the way. "They had been throwing a lot of soft passes to the high post all night long," Grant explained later. "I was either going to get the steal or foul him. They did it again, and I was able to steal it." With 13 seconds left, Grant made the dunk, putting the game out of reach.
"Grant makes things happen," said Boyd Grant. "You can't stand around when he's on the floor. If you make a mistake, he capitalizes on it."
It seemed only fitting that Grant - who totaled 17 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocked shots and 2 steals - would be the Man of the Hour in the Huntsman Center. After all, it was Grant who triggered the Utes' decisive rally earlier in the game.
The Utes, who had led 28-25 at halftime, were trailing 42-39 with 11 minutes remaining, when Grant, as he iswont to do in such situations, took charge. He scored on a reverse layup to make it 41-39. Then Phil Dixon - 1 for 6 on the night - made a trey to tie the score at 44. Then the crucial series: Three times the Rams missed shots to regain the lead, and three times Grant came down with the rebound. After each of the first two CSU misses, Dixon missed a go-ahead shot for Utah. After the third CSU miss, Grant took matters into his own hands. With six minutes to go, he made a trey to put Utah on top for good.
Thus, The Streak is alive. On Saturday night, the Utes will seek a record 16th consecutive win when they meet Air Force in the Huntsman Center.
In the meantime, the Utes are hoping any day now to recover their shooting touch. They have shot below 48 percent in their last nine games, including a 42-percent showing against CSU, which shot 43 percent. It was about what was expected from a matchup between two masterful defensive teams and two of the game's top bench coaches.
"Our plan was to stop Tryon, Meredith and (Chuckie) White," said Majerus.
The Utes managed that, but there was another problem no one had foreseen: Doug Larson. Who? Larson, who was averaging 1.9 points per game, kept the Rams afloat in the first half, scoring 12 of their first 20 points (he finished with 16).
In the end, of course, he wasn't enough. Josh Grant saw to that.