Shawn Bradley played up to his press notices. The University of Utah ran out of luck. As a result, Brigham Young University won the WAC tournament here Saturday and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament that will begin this week.
BYU's 51-49 overtime win over the Utes - the Cougars' first in three tries this season - proved the Utes, 28-2 coming into the game, to be human beings after all. After a season of alternating impersonations between Jerry West and Harry Houdini, the Utes didn't break out of the locked trunk this time.The strange thing was, this time, the odds were on Utah's side. At the end of regulation, with four seconds on the clock and the score tied, Walter Watts missed on a free throw opportunity that would have likely ended the game; and with about the same amount of time remaining at the end of overtime, Tyrone Tate had a chance at a close-range shot that, if successful, would have tied the game.
After so many miracle pullouts, the team that won 15 games during the season after trailing in the second half saw its good fortune cease to exist.
The play set up by Utah Coach Rick Majerus to free Tate for the potential game-tying shot will no doubt be used in coaching clinics all summer long. An example of a masterpiece, almost.
The conclusion was all the more stunning because the Utes were seemingly as alive and dangerous - and invincible - as ever just 30 seconds earlier. With the Cougars ahead 49-45 and just a half-minute remaining in the overtime, Utah came downcourt in need of something of a miracle to get back in the game.
They got it in short order, with Byron Wilson nailing a three-pointer in heavy traffic, after which he was fouled and sent to the line - with the chance to convert a rare four-point play.
Wilson hit the free throw, and the game was tied, setting the stage for, in order, two Nate Call free throws on the BYU end, and Utah's missed shot at the buzzer.
At that, a Craig Rydalch follow after Tate's misses - he shot twice - went through the hoop just after the clock went to double zero.
BYU's 7-foot-6 Bradley, with nothing to do but stare at Utah's last-chance miss, was as surprised as anyone that the Utes hadn't done it again.
"I was beginning to think they were un-killable," Bradley said.
At the last BYU-Utah game, in Provo a week ago when the Utes prevailed in overtime, Bradley sat the bench much of the game, scoring just six points and three rebounds. He hardly looked like the player broadly proclaimed as the next Lew Alcindor. At the end of the game, when BYU had a chance to win, he wasn't even in the lineup.
This time he was hardly out of it. He played 41 of the 45 minutes, scoring 21 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots. If there is one man whose prints were all over the Utes, it was Bradley.
"I've maintained all along he's the best player in the country as a freshman," said Utah's Majerus. "If he comes out tomorrow, it's a tough choice for the NBA between him and Shaquille O'Neal."
As Majerus passed Bradley in the hall after the game, he said in jest, "Remember me when it comes time to pick an agent."
Bradley said watching the Utes during the season - particularly in the two Utah-BYU regular season games - impressed him greatly. "They play so hard, they never give up. Ever," he said. "They've been a good example to me.They deserve everything they've gotten."
If the mood was mutual admiration society after the game, it was hardly that during the game. A crowd of 6,297 fans in the 15,000-seat Arena Auditorium watched the usual intensity associated with anything involving Utah and BYU.
Sandwiched side by side in the arena were the Utah and BYU contingents. Utah's was the largest, most boisterous, and most glittery. Utah Senator Jake Garn and Utah Governor Norm Bangerter flew in hours before tipoff in Ute Booster John Huntsman's private jet. They wore their red.
Other Ute fans had made the six and a half hour drive from Salt Lake during the day. On the other hand, few, if any, Cougar fans had driven to Laramie from Provo. When your team is ranked No. 8 and has lost twice in four months, mileage is always less of a factor.
Still, the Utes had already played two 9:35 p.m. games in this tournament, and they already owned the two close wins over BYU. If a monkey was on anyone's back, it was on theirs.
"We wanted to tire them out, make them play defense, maybe affect their offense that way," said BYU Coach Roger Reid. "We did that. But you know why we won? The ball bounced out. That's why. Tonight the ball bounced out. You gotta be lucky. Tonight it was us that got lucky."