In the continuing saga of the University of Utah's March on the Hoop World, we found the Utes fighting off the Falcons, the flu and a lengthy shooting slump - none of them with much success - Saturday night on their home court. Even the coaches got into the act, matching up the middle-age heavyweight, Rick Majerus, against the graying welterweight, Reggie Minton, in a court-side jaw-off. To boot, the Utes found themselves trailing lowly Air Force during crunchtime, which was certainly no way for the nation's 17th-ranked team to behave.
Not to worry. For the second time in three days, the Utes used some last-minute heroics to pull out another win, this time by a score of 62-56.Just another night in the Huntsman Center.
With less than two minutes to play, the Utes trailed the Falcons - the doormat of the Western Athletic Conference - by two points. Then Jimmy Soto took a steal the length of the court, Josh Grant - who else? - stuffed a Falcon shot in the lane, rebounded a Falcon miss, added two pairs of free throws - all in the final 50 seconds - and there it was, another routine victory, by Josh.
For the record - the record books, that is - it was the Utes' 16th consecutive victory, which tied a 78-year-old school record. Well, there are slumps and then there are slumps.
"Teams are coming to play," said Majerus. "We're 19-1. It's a big game for everyone."
Who would've thought. The Utes, who hoped to reach .500 at best this season, are 19-1 overall and 8-0 at the half-way point in the WAC season, holding a one-game lead over Wyoming for first place.
But how long can the Utes continue to rely on Grant for 11th-hour plays? Two nights earlier he made a last-minute steal-and-dunk to rescue the Utes against Colorado State. On Saturday, he did more of the same, plus 20points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.
In their last three games, the Utes have trailed in the second half against two mediocre teams - Colorado State and Air Force (twice). Air Force, mind you, is 6-11, 0-6 in WAC play. The problem is simple. The Utes' deadly shooting eye is a distant memory. They've shot 41 percent in conference play - 34 and 39 percent in the two Air Force outings. On Saturday, center Paul Afeaki made 1 of 6 shots, and Craig Rydalch and Phil Dixon were both 3 of 8.
"And we're shooting from four feet," marveled Majerus.
The slump might be remedied if Grant got more than the nine shots he took Saturday. "We do not do a good job of getting Josh shots," said Majerus.
Then again, flu hasn't helped matters either. "Everyone who got a flu shot has the flu," said Majerus, himself included. Majerus, who bagged Friday's practice in favor of a film session, is hoping rest will bring his players' legs to life. After Saturday's narrow escape, he was considering skipping Sunday's weight-lifting session and Monday's practice.
"Maybe we're in a slump, but we're winning," Majerus said.
Heaven help the WAC when the Utes regain their early-season shooting form.
The Utes seemed on their way to the expected rout Saturday when they took a 24-12 lead with 7:23 left in the first half, but they would score only one more field goal the remainder of the half. Air Force, led by Charles Smith (16 points), outscored the Utes 19-8 to tie the score at halftime, 31-all.
Maybe Grant had seen it coming. Driving to the game, he noticed the "U" flashing on the mountainside above the campus - a ritual normally reserved for after the game to signify a victory. "When I saw that, I was scared," he said. "I thought, What are they trying to do, jinx us?" With 13:49 left in the game and the Utes ahead 39-38, the contest took another dramatic turn. Majerus marched down the court to the Air Force bench, where he and Minton exchanged angry words. Minton had to be restrained by an assistant, but it was Majerus who was assessed a technical. The technical cost the Utes a possession and four points, and suddenly Air Force was ahead 42-39.
Afterward, both coaches were mum on the subject. "(Majerus) was upset at their assistant coach," said Grant. "He's got no right to be standing up."
For the next 10 minutes, the game see-sawed. When Smith buried a shot from the corner to give the Falcons a 56-54 lead with 2:15 remaining, they seemed poised for an upset, but they would never score again.
Walter Watts, fresh from the bench, scored with Omar Simpson draped over his arms to tie the score with 1:48 left. Now the Utes needed a big break, and they got it. Clark James was turning the corner at the top of the key when Soto, leaving his man, reached in from behind and slapped the ball away. He caught the deflection and raced up court for the go-ahead layup with 1:06 remaining.
Then Grant took charge, again. He blocked a 10-foot shot attempt by Simpson with 48 seconds left, made two free throws, rebounded a miss by Chris Lowry, and made two more free throws.
"We live on the edge," said Majerus. "We hustle and we gut it out."