Over the years, the Huntsman Center has been a graveyard for road teams in the Western Athletic Conference. Rivals are almost sure to chalk up a loss when they meet the University of Utah on its home court.
But there is one exception. The University of Wyoming has beaten the Utes in each of the past four seasons in the Huntsman Center, which is where those teams were to meet in Thursday night's big rematch.It was a must-win game for the Cowboys and, for that matter, the rest of the WAC. The Utes, 22-2 overall, 11-1 in conference play, can clinch the WAC championship with wins over Wyoming and over BYU Saturday night. It would be their first WAC title since 1985, when they finished in a three-way tie for first place. It would be their first outright title in 14 years.
As for the Cowboys, they are in third place in the WAC standings, with a 6-4 record (16-6 overall); BYU is second at 9-3 (15-10).
Not surprisingly, a packed house of 15,000-plus fans was expected for the Utah-Wyoming game.
Until they surprised the Cowboys last month in Laramie, the Utes had lost eight of their previous nine games to Wyoming. But in their Jan. 17 meeting, the Utes, down by seven points in the second half, rallied to a 90-83 victory. In the process, they held Reggie Slater, the WAC's top rebounder and second leading scorer, to just six points and five rebounds.
Since then, Wyoming has lost to Hawaii, San Diego State and New Mexico.
"Wyoming is a very, very good team," says Ute coach Rick Majerus. "They have a couple of the premier players in the league, they have an outstanding coach and they play good pressure defense. They are very physical. They're a strong team, and they have an excellent inside-outside game."
Slater, a 6-foot-7 all-conference power forward, is averaging 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Guard Mo Alexander, who scored 32 points in the first game against Utah, most of them from long distance, is averaging 18.4 points per game (which ranks fourth in the WAC). He is shooting 44 percent from three-point range and 85.4 percent from the foul line.
The remainder of the Cowboys' lineup consists of 6-6 forward Tim Breaux (12.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game), 6-11 center Reggie Page (7.3, 9.0) and 6-4 guard Rick Henry (4.3).
"I'm like the Pinkerton Detectives," said Wyoming coach Benny Dees earlier this season. "I'm wondering where did these guys (the Utes) come from. I thought they'd struggle (this season). I thought they'd be in about the middle of the WAC this year . . . They play great team ball. They're extremely well coached . . . They remind me of those great Indiana teams in the mid-70s."