For 10 minutes the game had been finished, but no one was leaving. Some 15,426 fans were still standing in front of their seats Saturday night in the Huntsman Center, and their University of Utah basketball team was still out on the floor, eating up the scene, mugging for cameras, hugging, high-fiving, laughing. And why not? The Utes, the unlikeliest of champions, had just won the Western Athletic Conference championship going away by defeating instate rival BYU 81-74.
Before leaving the floor, they needed something for the trophy case - the nets. First, they managed to lift 260-pound Walter Watts to take a few snips with the scissors. Then Josh Grant took his turn, and passed the scissors to Paul Afeaki, who, with a bullet hole in his left shoulder, took a few more cuts. One by one, the entire team took turns cutting down the nets, which seemed fitting enough. Has there ever been any team that defined the word more than the Utes?But where was the old man? Rick Majerus, the maniacical little genius who turned the Utes into a champion in two years, was nowhere in sight. He was hiding in the tunnel. "I wondered where he was," said guard Craig Rydalch. "But I figured he wanted to leave us alone. He believes players win games. That's the sign of a great man."
When the Utes finally left the court - thus letting all those captivated fans head for the exits at last - they found Majerus waiting for them in the locker room. "Everybody in the shower!" he said, and everyone - players, managers, and coaches - crowded into the showers, clothes and all.
"That's the nicest shower I ever took with 30 guys," said Majerus, who only two months ago scoffed at the suggestion that his team might challenge for the title.
But with still two games left in the regular season (including a rematch with BYU), the Utes have wrapped up the title early. Saturday's win gives them a record of 24-2 overall and 13-1 conference play. No one else is even close. The Cougars are in second place, with a 10-4 record (16-11 overall).
The Utes beat the Cougs with their usual formula: awful shooting, defense and rebounding. They outboarded the vastly bigger Cougars 44-41. They shot only 39.7 percent from the field - their standard of late - but they held BYU to 38.6.
The Cougars, who don't play well from behind, hoped to get on top early, as they have so many times recently (they had won five consecutive games). Instead, the Utes opened an 11-4 lead and never trailed again. By halftime they had built a 43-33 lead. They were still down by 10 with 8:39 left in the game when Shawn Bradley, BYU's 7-foot-6 freshman, went to the bench. It was then the Cougars made their last desperate run, cutting the lead to 63-60 with 4:49 remaining. But they folded down the stretch under the crush of Utah's pressure, man-to-man defense and the Utespulled away.
"We are not that disappointed," said BYU coach Roger Reid. "They deserve the championship."
Saturday's showdown focused on the first meeting between Grant and Bradley, the state's best players. It was a memorable meeting. Grant, who is 6-foot-10, raced down the lane to dunk over Bradley because, he explained, "I've said the whole year that I could do it and I had to try." Earlier he drove right at Bradley and flipped a high layup over his rival. More highlights. Bradley stuffs Watts. Grant hits a hurried jump shot as the shot clock expired. Bradley makes a soft hook in the lane (several of them). Bradley buries a trey from the corner.
It was none other than Grant who was assigned to defend Bradley, but at the other end of the court they went their ways. "(Grant) is tough to match up with," said Reid. "If you put a bigger guy on him, he drives. So our plan was to mix it up." The Cougars alternately used 6-foot-10 Gary Trost and 6-foot-2 Scott Moon to guard Grant, with mixed results.
When it was all finished, Bradley had 20 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocks. Grant had 17 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block.
"(Grant) is an NBA, all-WAC player," said Reid.
Grant might have scored more, but he was preoccupied much of the night with Bradley. "That's OK, because other guys were hitting their shots," said Grant.
It's always someone, isn't it? Stop this guy, someone else fills in. That's been the story all season for the Utes. With Afeaki on the bench nursing his wounded shoulder (see sidebar), the Utes were without one of their top reserves. "It just creates an opportunity for someone else to step forward," said Majerus before the game.
But who would have thought that someone would be Byron Wilson? Or Tyrone Tate? Or even Larry Cain? - all key figures in the first half.
Wilson, who hadn't scored in double figures in 13 games, came from nowhere to score 25 points. In the first half alone, he scored 17 points - already a career high by one point. By game's end, he had made 7 of 14 shots, including 6 of 9 treys.
"It was BYU," said Wilson. "I just got up for the game."
And then there was Tate. Scoreless in three of the previous five games, he scored nine points, plus four assists and 0 turnovers.
But the biggest surprise was Larry Cain. When he was called into the game Saturday in the absence of Afeaki, it marked only his third appearance in the last 14 games. So what does he do? With 1.1 seconds left in the first half, he scores off a rebound, draws a foul and makes the foul shot.
Not to be forgotten was Watts, who, without Afeaki, was forced to play 27 minutes. The Utes' lone senior, he finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds in his final home appearance.
"Everyone on this team understands that he's as big a part of this as anyone else on the team," said Majerus.