Can anybody in the Western Athletic Conference stop the University of Utah's Rockin' and Rollin' Utes? Time is running out. On Saturday night, the Utes made San Diego State their latest victim, knocking off the Aztecs 67-60 in front of the fifth largest crowd (15,358) in school history. The victory put Utah just two games away from clinching the WAC championship.
Even the Utes, who have been a study in a nonchalanceall season, couldn't help but be impressed Saturday, if only slightly.
"22-2. How 'bout that?" said Ute guard Phil Dixon after the game, referring Utah's overall record.
How 'bout 11-1? That's the Utes' record in conference play, which gives them a two-game lead over runner-up BYU in the WAC standings. Speaking of which, it's showdown time.
"This week coming up is probably the most important week we've ever faced," said Josh Grant. "We play Wyoming and BYU. If we win both games, we win the WAC."
The Aztecs, 20-point losers to BYU two nights earlier and 6-point losers to Utah earlier this season, were game for Saturday's rematch. That was largely because Marty Dow, the team's 7-foot-1 center, burned the Utes for 22 points and 11 rebounds, which isn't bad for a guy who just underwent a root canal.
Down by five points at halftime - and by 10 midway through the second half - the Aztecs twice cut the Utes' lead to two points, but Utah finally managed to pull away, despite another poor shooting performance.
For the 17th time in the last 18 games, the Utes shot less than 50 percent from the field (this time 39 percent). Itsays much about their defense that they also have won all but one of those games.
What do you call 39 percent shooting? somebody asked Ute coach Rick Majerus after the game. "Bad. Abysmal," said Majerus. "We got a lot of good shots in the second half. Josh is wide open and missing shots."
Josh Grant, the team's top scorer, made just 5 of 16 shots, but Majerus wasn't complaining. After all, Grant managed 13 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 blocked shot to go with 18 points.
"When you can't throw it in the ocean, it's scary," said Grant, who's shooting 40 percent in WAC play. "It's a good thing we're winning."
Grant had plenty of scoring help against the Aztecs. Reserves Craig Rydalch and Phil Dixon combined for 19 points, which included two timely treys each. Walter Watts, the Utes' resurging (again) center, finished with 15 points and 9 rebounds, in his rematch with Dow.
"I had to prove something to myself," said Dow. "Walter kicked my butt in San Diego."
Dow proved something simply by showing up for Saturday's game. During the Aztecs' practice on Tuesday, he caught an elbow in the mouth that cracked his left front tooth. He required a pain-killing injection on Thursday to play against BYU, but on Friday the pain still persisted so he underwent an emergency root canal in Salt Lake City.
With NBA scouts watching him from the stands, Dow made 10 of 16 shots against Utah, hitting a variety of soft-touch jump shots.
"He's a real good shooter," said Watts. "He was real hot tonight."
"Marty Dow kicked our -- big-time," said Majerus.
But of course he wasn't enough. The Utes seemed to answer every Aztec threat with big plays. With the Utes down 10-9, Grant and Dixon made a pair of treys. With the game tied at 19, Grant made a nifty pass to Watts for a dunk, and moments later Watts scored off a rebound that earned a lengthy ovation from the fans. With Utah leading by just two points with three seconds left in the half, Rydalch made a trey to give Utah a 33-28 halftime lead.
It was more of the same in the second half. When the Aztecs closed the gap to one point, the Utes rolled off six consecutive points, topped by a Dixon trey. A trey by Jimmy Soto a short time later gave Utah a 48-38 lead.
But the Utes went cold, and Dow quickly shot the Aztecs back into the game, cutting the gap to 52-50. More big plays. Watts faked left in the paint and ran around Dow for a layup. Then, with 6:50 remaining, the 260-pound Watts intercepted a pass at the top of the key and outran two defenders - a runaway Amtrak - for a dunk.
"I thought they (the Aztecs) would catch me," said Watts. "I was almost laughing."
With 4:47 remaining, Rydalch hit another trey to give Utah a comfortable 63-54 lead. But things looked good for the Aztecs later when Dow cut the lead to five points and Soto's shot from the wing missed. But then Watts leaped out of a crowd to tip the shot back in the basket with 2:27 to play.
"We wanted to get some of our pride back after the way we played on Thursday," said Dow, whose team is 9-12, 4-6 and still searching for its second road of the season.
"It wouldn't have taken much of the ball bouncing the right way for us to get a win on the road," said Aztec coach Jim Brandenburg.
But by now it has become clear that Utah is not the place to get a road win.