Only 21 days ago, Paul Afeaki, the University of Utah's 6-foot-10 center, was lying in Thursday's game a hospital with a gunshot wound in his left shoulder, and doctors were saying that his life had been spared by a matter of inches. Supposedly his basketball season was finished, but when the Utes opened play in the Western Athletic Conference tournament Thursday night in Laramie, there he was, and just in time, too.
Afeaki, who practiced for the first time in three weeks only three days earlier, took a couple of aspirin, put a couple of Band-Aids on his shoulder - "One for each hole," he said - and played like he had never been away. In just 15 minutes of play, he scored 11 points - 9 of them in the second half - grabbed 3 rebounds, made 5 of 9 shots and played a big part in Utah's 67-56 victory over San Diego State."I played him because I wanted to win the game," said Majerus. "We wouldn't have won without him."
This was no mere coach's exaggeration. The Aztecs, who had trailed by 17 points, cut the Utes' lead to 10 points twice late in the game, and both times it was Afeaki who turned them away. The first time he wheeled in the lane for a layup. Moments later, he made a chip shot inside, with defenders hanging on his arms, then made the free throw, giving Utah a 53-42 lead with 7:11 remaining. The Aztecs never recovered.
"It felt great," said Afeaki, beaming afterward. "I love it."
Afeaki's performance, along with that of his tag-team partner, Walter Watts (13 points), and 5-foot-7 Jimmy Soto (10 points), was more than enough to send eighth-ranked Utah to its 27th victory of the season (against just two defeats), which broke a 41-year-old school record. The win also sends the Utes to tonight's semifinals, where they will meet Wyoming at 9:35 in a matchup neither coach seems to relish.
"I'd rather not play them on their home court," said Majerus. "I wish they'd blow this place up and we could play in their old place."
"I don't know how good it feels to win and then have to play Utah," said Wyoming coach Benny Dees after his 19-10 Cowboys narrowly defeated UTEP earlier in the evening. "You've got to bring your hard hat to play Utah. They're a blue-collar team all the way."
And never more than on Thursday night. The Utes shot just 43.5 percent from the field, but their usual aggressive man-to-man defense held Aztecs to 34.5 percent. The Utes also won the battle of the boards 43-35.
Following the Aztecs' victory over Air Force in Wednesday's preliminary round, Majerus retired to his hotel room to watch films into the wee hours, but why? The Utes have now beaten the Aztecs, 12-16, three times this season, the latest win coming despite center Marty Dow's 18 points and despite forward Keith Balzer's prediction that "an upset may be in the making."
With 12:12 remaining in the first half and trailing 12-11, the Utes made a 16-4 run - ignited by eight points from Watts - that broke the game open. When the Aztecs cut the lead to eight points, Soto buried back-to-back treys, putting Utah on top 35-23 at halftime. The Utes' lead increased to 45-27 in the second half, and they coasted from there.
Majerus played nine players at least 15 minutes and none more than 26 (Josh Grant - the newly named WAC Player of the Year - played just 18 minutes and finished with a season-low five points).
"I wasn't happy," said Majerus. "I thought we were selfish for the first time. I finally found five (players)."
One of them was Afeaki, who, if you haven't heard by now, was shot by an irate motorist on Valentine's Day night. Only a few days ago, Majerus was saying it would be a miracle if Afeaki played this week, but Afeaki kept pressing to play again. Doctors permitted him to begin practicing with the team on Tuesday. Afeaki did more than that. He also participated in private conditioning sessions with assistant coach Kirk Earlywine.
Afeaki dressed for Thursday's the game, but didn't expect to play. "I thought I might play a little here and there (on Friday)," he said, but with 6:54 left in the first half and Utah leading 21-15, Majerus sent Afeaki into the game to a warm welcome from fans (a standing ovation) and opponents. "Welcome back," the Aztec players told him. "How are you feeling?" asked Dow. Twenty-one seconds later they knew. Afeaki took a pass from Craig Rydalch and made a layup.
That was just a warmup. Four minutes into the second half, Majerus sent Afeaki back onto the court to replace Watts. "I didn't think Walt was taking it to them," said Majerus. "He was not playing like a second-team all-conference center."
A couple of minutes later Afeaki scored on a dunk, then rebounded his own missed shot for another score. "Are you OK?" Majerus kept asking him, but Afeaki assured him he was fine.
"Paul was great tonight," said Grant. "He's been really tired in practice. We've been just walking through practice. He's practicing two or three times a day, but he didn't look like it. I was surprised. Usually after you've been away that long it takes a long time to get your rhythm back."
"He's way out of condition, but he has a lot of heart," said Majerus.