Two months and one day after it all began, it finally ended. The University of Utah's seemingly endless winning streak was history. On Saturday afternoon, the 12th-ranked Utes were beaten by New Mexico - or was it just Luc Longley? - 68-62 in a ferociously played game in The Pit. Finally, the Utes ran out of comebacks, big plays off the bench, 11th-hour steals and the timely three-point baskets that had sustained them through 62 days and 17 consecutive victories - since a Dec. 1 road loss to Michigan.
Finally the Utes were losers, and it took some getting used to."It's hard not to take this hard when you're so used to winning," said Ute guard Craig Rydalch.
Especially when the Utes seemingly had the game under control. With 161/2 minutes remaining, they led by nine points, but then their shooting touch deserted them. During the next 12 minutes their scoring consisted of two foul shots and zero field goals (they made just 8 of 35 shots in the second half). The Lobos, meanwhile, ran off 18 points, opening a 54-47 lead with 41/2 minutes to go.
The Utes couldn't answer with a comeback. They ran out of gas. In the second half, Josh Grant, who played only sparingly in the first half, asked to be taken out of the game because of fatigue, so there was the game's best offensive player on the bench when the Utes needed him most.
"He wanted to play, but he was tired," said Utah coach Rick Majerus.
"My legs just didn't have any zip today," said Grant. "I had no spring. I don't know why."
It was to Grant's credit that he still managed 22 points and 10 rebounds - and he played only 25 minutes.
In the end, what finally beat the Utes was Longley, the 7-foot-2 center from Australia. In his last three games against Utah, he had been mostly a silent observer, as the Utes and 6-foot-8, 260-pound Walter Watts pushed him out of the game. Not this time. "He didn't back down," said Rydalch. "He played like a man."
Longley finished with 17 points - despite missing 5 of 8 free throws - 12 boards and 6 blocked shots (5 in the second half). But what really hurt Utah was his passing - his 5 assists. When the Utes tried to rally late in the game, he passed to guard Jimmy Taylor coming in the back door for back-to-back layups.
"No one else in our league could make those plays," said Ute coach Rick Majerus. "He should be first-team All-America with those plays . . . I already have a bet with a writer from the New York Times that Longley will be one of the first six players taken in the NBA draft. He'll be a career NBA player."
Saturday's loss left the Utes with a record of 20-2 overall - 9-1 in Western Athletic Conference play. Their lead over runnerup Wyoming has been cut to one game. Meanwhile, the Lobos, the preseason favorite to win the WAC, are 16-6/6-4.
"We may not be able to catch (Utah), but this has to help our confidence," said Longley.
Three weeks ago, of course, it had been a different story. The Utes handled the Lobos 65-53 in Salt Lake City. But on Saturday morning, a few hours before the game, Ute assistant coach Joe Cravens said it best: "The Lobos are a different team at home."
Some 17,966 fans turned out for the rematch, and what they saw was a game that raised the level intensity and overall play another notch. Byron Wilson bolted down the baseline past three defenders for a dunk. Longley stuffed Grant under the basket. Little Jimmy Soto flew down the baseline for a jump shot. Grant blocked Willie Banks. There were shoves, near-fights, wrestling for loose balls, fierce defense and rebounding.
"Before the game, the referee told me he was going to let us play," said Longley. "It was very evenly matched. The ref let us bang around, and we did."
Longley versus Walter Watts, The Rematch in the Post. That was the game's critical matchup, again. Watts was the winner in Round one, but this time, the edge went to Longley, if only barely. Giving up a half-foot to Longley, Watts managed 12 points - most of them over his rival - and 13 rebounds, but Longley eluded him late in the game.
From the opening bell, the Lobos attacked the basket. Eight of their first 16 baskets came on drives to the glass, which helped open a 26-23 lead. Then the game took a turn. Rydalch and Rob Robbins collided during a scramble for a loose ball. They came up barking and shoving, and one thing led to another. Soon several players swarmed to the scene to the accident. That brought Majerus running onto the floor, where he gave Watts a shove and angrily ordered his players to the bench, where he chewed them out again.
That may or may not have had anything to do with what unfolded afterward. The Utes proceeded to run off 11 unanswered points. Wilson hit back-to-back jump shots on the baseline, Soto scored from the baseline and treyland, Paul Afeaki made a hook and the Utes were up 34-26. Rydalch made a trey at the buzzer to make it 37-31 at halftime.
The Utes were leading 45-36 when they fell apart. The Lobos started their 18-2 run to take a seven-point lead. The Utes never got closer than four points the rest of the way, with Taylor, a reserve, scoring 10 consecutive points down the stretch.
"It's a downer," said Rydalch. "There's no more win streak, but I know we'll come back."