Paul Afeaki injured in shooting, story on A1.
With six minutes remaining in Thursday night's intense Utah-Wyoming showdown, the score was tied 61-all, but were the Utes worried? Nah. "We've been in that situation so many times before," said Ute forward Josh Grant. In eight of their previous 12 conference games, the Utes had trailed in the second half, and they won all but one of them. "I was thinking, `Here we go again,"' said Grant. "Everyone on the team responds in that situation."And so they did again. Playing in front of 15,076 fans - decked out in Valentine red and white - the Utes delivered another late knockout to put Wyoming out of its misery, 77-72.
As usual, it was Grant who delivered down the stretch. Is this The Never Ending Story or what? "That's what he's supposed to do," says Utah coach Rick Majerus. "He's supposed to be that kind of player."
During one stretch midway through the second half, when the score was tied three times, Grant scored eight consecutive points for Utah. When the score was tied again at 61-all with 6:05 remaining, he proceded to score seven points and passed for two more. In all, Grant scored 18 of his 24 points in the second half.
"Grant took over the game with about six minutes left, and he beat us," said Wyoming coach Benny Dees.
When it was all finished and his teammates had already left the court, Grant walked off the court alone with his right fist extended to the ceiling. There was reason to celebrate.
"The big game's Saturday," said Phil Dixon in the locker room.
It has come to this. Utah and BYU, Saturday night in the Huntsman Center, for the championship, maybe. The 13th-ranked Utes - 23-2 overall, 12-1 in league play - can win the Western Athletic Conference championship with a win over the Cougars, their closest pursuers.
If Grant was the hero of Thursday's game, he was only one of many for Utah. As Majerus said, "If we had missed one guy tonight, we don't win. Everyone contributed."
Start with Grant. Along with 24 points, he had 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocked shots and 5 steals. Dixon, the team's ace reserve and long-shot artist, totaled 20 points, hitting 7 of 10 shots in 24 minutes of play. That covers the offense. On defense, Walter Watts did a number on the Cowboys' inside scorer, all-conference forward Reggie Slater, and Tyrone Tate did the same to their outside scorer, guard Mo Alexander.
Going up against Watts, Slater, who was averaging 18 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, produced 10 points, 6 rebounds and 5 turnovers, which was only slightly better than his 6-point, 5-rebound outing against Utah last month. Then there was Alexander, who was averaging 18 points and was fresh from a 49-point outing against San Diego State. Last month he worked Tate over for 32 points.
"If you don't play good D tonight we won't win," Majerus told Tate before the game.
With Tate in his jersey, Alexander made just 4 of 10 shots, and totaled 10 points and 6 turnovers. "I denied him the ball," Tate explained. "He likes to dribble right and then go left, so I played him to his right."
At one point Alexander became so frustrated with Tate's sticky defense that he sent him reeling with a blatant two-handed shove to the chest. The zebras missed it, but the crowd and Dees didn't. Dees yanked him from the game briefly.
It was that kind of night. Dees experienced another of his temperamental meltdowns, which earned a technical. Even the normally mild Watts was worked up - "Maybe too excited," said Majerus - barking first in Todd Barnett's ear and then in Kerry McIntyre's face. Slater and Paul Afeaki traded elbows. Afeaki and McIntyre got in a shoving match.
Hmmm, must be mid-February.
And the Cowboys, whom everyone calls the WAC's most talented team, are fading fast. They have lost four of their last five games, all of them going to the wire, to slip to 16-7/6-5 and out of the title race.
The Cowboys controlled the Utes for much of the first half Thursday, opening an 11-point lead. With Slater and Alexander quiet, forward Tim Breaux took charge, scoring 22 points. But the game turned partly on two events. Dees' technical - the result of protesting a foul call - resulted in four foul shots by Jimmy Soto. Moments later a foul by Reggie Page under the basket nullified a trey by Breaux. Dixon then hit back-to-back treys - 17 seconds apart - then turned a steal into a layup to put Utah on top for the first time, 33-31, with 3:44 remaining in the half. A hook shot and a pair of foul shots by Afeaki gave the Utes a 37-35 halftime lead.
And Grant, easily their best scorer, had just six points. "At halftime we told him to go inside more," said Majerus.
Grant went to the glass effectively in the second half, but the Utes couldn't break the Cowboys. Seven times the game was tied. The Utes nearly broke away when M'Kay McGrath exploited a blown defensive assignment twice for quick layups, and then blocked an Alexander pass that led to another score and a 61-55 Utah lead. But Breaux and Mo shot the Cowboys back into that 61-61 tie. A minute later, Craig Rydalch buried a trey from the corner to give Utah the lead for good, 64-61. Grant scored the Utes' next seven points to put Utah on top 71-65 with 1:40 remaining. Dixon added the finishing touches with three free throws and a dunk.
"That was a great game," said Majerus. "You won't get any better than that."
Conference All games
Utah 12 1 .923 23 2 .920
BYU 10 3 .769 16 10 .615
Wyoming 6 5 .545 16 7 .696
New Mexico 7 6 .538 17 8 .680
UTEP 6 6 .500 15 9 .625
CSU 4 7 .363 13 10 .565
Hawaii 4 8 .333 12 11 .522
SDSU 4 9 .308 9 13 .409
Air Force 1 10 .091 8 15 .348