Update on the University of Utah's Runnin' Utes: The Great Shooting Slump is over. So is the one-game losing streak, thanks to a visit from the Hawaii Rainbows, everybody's favorite guest. The Rainbows never found the target Thursday night in the Huntsman Center, unless you want to count Phil Dixon's lip or Craig Rydalch's face. Afterward, CBS interviewed Coach Rick Majerus for an upcoming halftime feature. The Utes are still a story.
Call it a night. Final score: Utah 80, Hawaii 60.For the first time since December, Utah put an opponent away early. For once, there was no second-half suspense, no white knuckles. The Utes, who led 42-34 at halftime, steadily widened their lead and were still edging away when the final buzzer sounded on a 20-point victory.
The 15th-ranked Utes, whose 17-game winning streak ended last Saturday in New Mexico, are now 21-2 overall and 10-1 in league play, with three home games ahead of them. A sweep of those games would be enough to win the Western Athletic Conference championship. For the record, it's been 10 years since the Utes won 21 games in a season - and they still have five regular-season games to go.
Meanwhile, the Rainbows, who had managed to take Utah into overtime before falling 63-60 early last month in Honolulu, are 11-10 overall, 3-7 in WAC play and 1-5 on the road.
"We are not a good road team," said Hawaii coach Riley Wallace. Which is nothing new. The Rainbows have won only once in 17 visits to Salt Lake City.
"We have no excuses tonight," said Wallace. "We lost against a nationally ranked team that's very disciplined."
Just as they have done so often this season, the Utes spent the first half re-scouting their opponents, then made some defensive changes at halftime designed to stop the man with the hot hand. In this case, the hot hand belonged to forward Tim Shepherd, who scored 17 points in the first half - well above his 9.5 average.
"Instead of playing in front of him like we did in the first half, we got behind him in the," explained Rydalch, who at halftime was reassigned to defend Shepherd.
In the second half, Shepherd took just one shot and didn't score a single point.
"We talked about how to stop him at halftime," said Majerus. "We made one little adjustment, but I'd rather not say what it was. We've got to play these guys again (maybe). At halftime we emphasized Shepherd. He was the only one who was really hurting us."
That's because Ray Reed, the leading scorer in the conference, averaging 20 points per game, was being shadowed by Phil Dixon. Reed scored nine points and connected on just 4 of 13 shots, not counting a couple of accurately thrown elbows. In the first half, he bloodiedDixon's mouth with an elbow to the lower lip.
"He was talking trash all night," said Dixon. "He was frustrated. He hit me with an elbow that cut my lip on my teeth. It was a cheap shot."
Reed connected with the elbow again late in the game, this time catching Rydalch on the cheek. The officials whistled him for an intentional foul (also his fifth foul).
"He told me three or four times he was going to do it," said Rydalch. "I saw it coming. He came through a screen like this (elbow up) and hit me in the face."
Meanwhile, back to the game. The Rainbows shot only 42 percent from the field and seemed to wear down as the game wore on, which is a habit of Ute opponents this season.
Not everything went according to form Thursday. There was Utah's shooting. For two months and 16 games, the Utes had failed to shoot better than 49 percent from the field in a game, and in WAC play their shooting had slipped to 41 percent. Following Saturday's loss to New Mexico, in which Utah shot 35 percent, several of the Utes showed up for this week's practices early to work on their shooting (among them, Rydalch and Dixon). That may or may not have been the reason the Utes shot 59.6 from the field against Hawaii - 73.7 percent (14 of 19) in the second half.
Josh Grant finished with 15 points. Walter Watts had 11 points, but foul trouble limited him to 13 minutes of playing time. Watts' replacement, Paul Afeaki, totaled 14 points (and two blocks and two steals) in 22 minutes of play, making 6 of 9 shots. Dixon and Rydalch both made 3 of 4 field goal attempts and finished with 17 points between them.
"We shot very well, and that made our defense better," said Majerus, who will be featured during halftime of Saturday's nationally televised game between Seton Hall and Oklahoma.
Hours later, Utah will play San Diego State in the Huntsman Center. The Utes are hoping for a repeat of Thursday's performance.