Another week in the life of the University of Utah basketball team: Take a couple of days off, practice with some school kids, climb to 12th in the national polls, add a few new plays, win another big game, set another record, convert some more skeptics, do it all with nonchalance.
In other words, business as usual.On Thursday night, the Utes knocked off the University of Texas-El Paso 78-68 in El Paso - their first win there in 10 years.
But then this has been a season of firsts anyway.
The Utes used the same old formula to claim yet another victory. A mix-and-match lineup from start to finish, play 'em close till crunch time, wear 'em down, crash the boards, nonstop D, hustle.
In the second half, the Utes shut out the Miners' Marvelous Marlon Maxey and Mc'nificient Mark McCall, then pressured their opponents until they crumbled, and blew open a two-point game midway through the second half.
Count 'em again. The Utes own a 20-1 record, 9-and-oh in Western Athletic Conference play. They have claimed 17 consecutive victories, which breaks a 78-year-old school record and ties the WAC record (set by New Mexico in 1967-68 and tied by BYU in 1987-88).
More importantly, Thursday's win pushed the Utes closer to the WAC title. OK, it's early, but they already have produced four road breakthroughs, two of them against top contenders UTEP (13-6/5-4) and Wyoming. Speaking of which, Wyoming, the Utes' closest pursuer, lost to Hawaii late Thursday night, leaving Utah with a two-game lead over the rest of the league.
Following Utah's latest win, everyone was walking around the Special Events Center shaking his head in disbelief, mumbling words like amazing and unbelieveable. About the only ones who weren't impressed with the Utes were the Utes. Inside Utah's post-game locker room, which has yet to see a major celebration, Rick Majerus, the Ute coach and head fusspot, congratulated the team but spent most of his time trying to decide how late to let the guys sleep in, what time to have breakfast, where to hold study hall, etc.
That settled, he braved the press. As usual, he gushed. "It's just the next game," he said of the UTEP win.
But wasn't this a big win? someone asked. "They're all the same," he said. "It was a nice win. We played hard. We didn't play tentatively tonight."
But aren't the Utes feeling any pressure, with the streak and all? "Look, we don't have to win," he said. "Schwarzkopf has to win. My heart surgeon has to win. We just have to try to win."
Majerus was just warming up. "I get paid the same amount whether we win or lose. I'm more concerned about where we're going to hold study hall tomorrow. That's real pressure."
OK, but is he surprised by the Utes' winning streak? "Sure, if I had thought we were going to win 17 games in a row, I would have told my Uncle Hodge to bet 'em all big."
By now, Majerus has this role down pat. He has been low key all week, if not all season. Worried that his players were fatigued, he gave them Sunday and Monday off. Well, almost. On Monday, he had the team play with a group of school kids, and then the Utes held shooting contests - with their coaches.
"If there's any one thing I did, it was that I didn't overwork them this week, and that's a first for me," said Majerus.
The time off didn't quite revive the Utes' marksmanship - they shot 46 percent - but they did outrebound (37-28), outhustle (13 steals!) and outlast their quicker, bigger opponents. For the record, Josh Grant scored 16 points and Walter Watts had 11 points and 10 rebounds (9 and 8, respectively, in the second half).
Majerus did more than give the Utes time off. He also added several new plays to the offense, although he later declined to say what they were.
"If you run them (the plays) and run them right, we'll beat them," he told his team before the game.
The Utes then ran out and opened a 10-point lead. Phil Dixon ended his slump by making 4 of 5 shots, Grant made a four-point play - a trey and a foul shot - and Utah led 33-23 with 6:16 remaining. Then the M&M act heated up again.
Maxey and McCall, last-minute additions to the starting lineup, scored 23 points between them in the first half, missing just two shots. Together they led a rally that cut Utah's lead to 39-37 at the half.
At halftime, Majerus tinkered with his defense to stop McCall and Maxey. Result: McCall had six points in the second half, Maxey zero, with each getting only four shots.
"We tried to deny them the ball more," said Majerus. "But I'd rather not say specifically what we did with them."
Trailing 50-49 with 12:38 to play, the Utes made an 8-0 run - with Grant on the bench - and never trailed again. Craig Rydalch made back-to-back steals that led to scores, then made a trey to put Utah on top 57-50. When the Miners closed the gap to 57-55, Grant came off the bench and promptly buried a trey to start a 12-2 run.
The Miners wilted. They made one field goal during a 10-minute stretch, and threw up hasty shots or committed turnovers on nearly every trip up the floor.
"We took them out of their offense completely," said Grant.
"We were terrible," said UTEP coach Don Haskins. "When you play a team as good as Utah, they can take you apart, and they did."