As the University of Utah's Runnin' Utes headed for a game with Colorado State Thursday night in Fort Collins, the question on everyone's mind was would they let down their guard? After all, the Utes, who have thrived largely on intensity, had already clinched the Western Athletic Conference championship a week earlier with a win over BYU. Wasn't it finally time to relax?
Following the BYU win, even the old taskmaster himself, Coach Rick Majerus, told his players to - no kidding - put the books away and enjoy the victory. There's a first. During the week, Majerus noticed his players were unusually loose. But then so was he. By game time, Majerus worried because he wasn't worried. The usual pre-game knot in his stomach was gone. For once, he was even able to eat a pre-game meal. Forward Josh Grant noticed the same thing: "I wasn't nervous," he said. "Maybe I used all my nerves last week."Not to worry. The same old Utes showed up in Moby Arena, and the results were the same, with one twist. They shot a stunning, season-high 60.5 percent from the field - only the second time in league play that they've hit better than 50 percent - to defeat Colorado State 67-56. Some letdown. When they met CSU last month, the Utes escaped with a last-gasp, four-point win.
"I don't think we let down," understated Majerus.
The rematch started close enough. After seven lead changes in the first half, the Utes led 33-31 at halftime. They stretched their lead to 10 points in the second half, only to watch the Rams cut the gap to 56-53 with 4:20 left. Gut-check time.
The Rams would score just three more points the rest of the way. The Utes, in the meantime, pressed on, scoring the next six points. Phil Dixon, who had attempted (and missed) one shot all night, found himself open just inside the three-point line. "They were fakin' and fadin' (on defense)," said Dixon. It was a strange way to treat one of the WAC's deadliest long-distance operators. "They paid for it," said Dixon, who made the shot. Moments later, following a steal by Jimmy Soto, Dixon took his defender to the glass for a driving bank shot. "He was bigger and slower than me," said Dixon. "It was a mismatch, so I took it."
The Utes weren't done. Craig Rydalch sent a back-handed pass to Walter Watts for a dunk, and Grant made five free throws, and the Utes were winners. Again.
Count them up one more time. With one regular-season game remaining, the 10th-ranked Utes are 25-2 overall - one win away from equaling the winningest season in school history - and 14-1 in WAC play - which ties the single-season record for WAC victories.
"I'm happy we gutted it out," said Majerus. "I don't want to say what we did exactly. We've got to keep some secrets for the WAC tournament."
"Utah is a great team," said CSU coach Boyd Grant. "They didn't get to where they are by not being a good team."
And the Rams? Their descent this season has been as sudden as the Utes' ascent. The Rams, the two-time defending champions, are 13-12 overall, 4-9 in league play.
In the end, the Rams' depth - or their lack of it - probably caught up with them. Their ranks have been thinning steadily since December. Two players left the team, one underwent surgery, and three were redshirted. Grant began Thursday's game with eight players. Then Doug Larsen went down with an ankle injury. Seven players. Then guard Mark Meredith fouled out midway through the second half. Six players. Something else hurt the Rams. The Utes were leading 41-35 when Grant was whistled for a technical (for arguing a non-call with officials). The T cost the Rams possession and three points and helped sustain an 8-0 Utah run.
"We needed to win tonight to keep things going," said M'Kay McGrath. "This would have been a terrible time to break down."
As usual, everyone had a hand in Utah's victory. Josh Grant had 19 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals, 2 assists. Watts, who could be seen shouting to his teammates throughout the game to "Give me the ball!" totaled 18 points (hitting 8 of 9 shots), 8 boards, 3 dunks and 2 turn-around jump shots.
"I want to get my name in the scoring," he said. "I had to ask for the ball. It's almost the end of the season. I'm getting after it."
There were other big plays and players. With the Utes' lead cut to one point, Soto signaled for a play at the top of the key, ran past a Grant pick and pulled up for a soft jump shot from 10 feet with two seconds left on the shot clock and 21 seconds left in the half.
In all, the Utes, who were helped considerably by Byron Wilson's 10 first-half points (he finished with 11), made 26 of 43 field goal attempts.