Just when it looked like the University of Utah was going to make an early exit from the NCAA tournament Friday afternoon, just when it appeared that the team might never show up - both literally and figuratively - just when it looked like Rick Majerus was going to blow a bypass as his Utes wilted under the pressure of the press and a guy named Boobie . . . Josh Grant, Walter Watts and Co. got their usual wake-up call in the second half to pull out another victory.
In a game that featured both the best and the worst of their 1990-91 season, the Utes, champions of the Western Athletic Conference, rallied to claim an 82-72 victory over South Alabama, champion of the Sun Belt Conference.The game turned dramatically and suddenly. After trailing for most of the first half, down by seven points at halftime, the Utes made an amazing 20-2 run to start the second half and were never truly threatened the remainder of the game.
The numbers: Grant, held to five points and nine minutes of play in the first half, totaled 22 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists. Watts finished with 14 points and 11 boards.
Next stop: the second round, where fourth-seeded Utah, 29-3, will meet fifth-seeded Michigan State and All-American Steve Smith on Sunday afternoon. Like Utah, Michigan State, 19-10, survived a first-round scare on Friday, beating Wisconsin-Green Bay on Smith's last-second 18-foot jump shot.
"If you need to talk to me, do it now, because I'm going back to the hotel room and lock the door to start looking at tape (of Michigan State)," Utah coach Rick Majerus told reporters Friday.
There was little time for celebration, although certainly Friday's win called for it. "That was a heckuva win," said Majerus. "Everyone at ESPN and CBS was saying this would be a tough game, and it was."
But the Utes won, and for all of the usual reasons. The day before the game, Majerus predicted that if the scoring reached 60 points the Utes would win for sure; if in the low 70s, they would still be favored; if in the high 70s, it could go either way; if in the 90s and 100s, "We're out of here." As it turned out, the Utes held the Jaguars to 17 points below their season scoring average and limited them to 41 percent shooting (well below their usual 49 percent). What's more, the Utes outrebounded the Jaguars by a whopping 48-33 margin.
"They kicked us on the boards," said USA coach Ronnie Arrow. "That's the worst we've been beaten all year. No one's done that to us."
It was a surprising ending to a game that had begun so precariously for the Utes. Things began to go wrong even before the tipoff. The Utes, thinking the game started later, didn't arrive at McKale Center until 20 minutes before tipoff. By then the Jaguars had nearly completed their warmup and the referees were wondering what had happened to the Utes. "Does the other team know when the game starts?" one official asked another.
"We just screwed up," said Majerus. As a result, Majerus had to shorten his 20-minute pre-game talk to five minutes before sending his players onto the floor for a quick warmup, 15 minutes before tipoff.
"I was surprised," said Grant. "But I don't take much time for warmup anyway."
But who could tell? All week long the Utes had worried about the Jaguars' varying array of full-court and half-court pressure defenses. "We worked on the press all week and it worked great," said Craig Rydalch. But not come game time. In the first half, the Jaguars converted 12 turnovers into 14 points (compared to 2 turnover points for Utah). Four times the Utes turned the ball over before even crossing midcourt.
"It was almost two games," said Majerus. "We played our worst basketball of the year. In the first half we gave up 10 points off second shots, 10 off fastbreaks and eight on one-on-one plays. It's the worst we've played since I've been at Utah."
Even when the Utes did escape the Jaguar press, they were cold. Phil Dixon and Paul Afeaki missed open chip shots. Grant threw up an airball. So did Watts - on a free throw. During one possession, the Utes got four open shots and missed them all.
In the meantime, the man who was hurting the Utes the most was reserve guard Boobie James, a former Nevada-Las Vegas and Dixie College starter who scored 11 points in the first half, hitting all five of his shots, most of them while working one-on-one with his former Dixie teammate, Craig Rydalch.
By halftime, the Utes trailed 41-34.
"Our players were thanking their Mormon god, and I was thanking my god that we weren't farther behind than that after the way we played," said Majerus. "We couldn't have played worse. I could hardly wait to get to the locker room."
At halftime, the Utes decided to go fulltime to the second of their two strategies for handling the press. This one kept four players back to bring the ball upcourt and sent the in-bounds pass to the center. But Majerus wasn't about to credit the Utes' turnaround to Xs and Os. "It was an affair of the heart and the head," he said. "I just went off on them (at halftime)."
The Utes made a 14-0 run to start the second half, with eight of those points coming from Grant. The Utes' streak grew to 20-2 despite missing two layups and committing a traveling violation under the hoop. The Jaguars didn't score a single point for the first seven minutes of the second half - and only two points for the first 10:30 of the second half. Meanwhile, Grant, Watts and M'Kay McGrath attacked the boards and drove to the hoop with abandon.
"When we were warming up for the second half, I felt like the team was in a lull and that I needed to set an example and get them fired up," said Grant, who produced a highlight film of outside play (a trey) and inside play (a one-handed rebound dunk of a missed shot by Afeaki and a long-armed score from behind the glass).
Byron Wilson took a length-of-the-court in-bounds pass from Watts for another score to give Utah a 13-point lead with 6 minutes to play. The Jaguars cut the gap to five points with 1:30 to play, but it was too late. The Utes made enough free throws down the stretch to hold off the rally.
"They didn't panic when they got behind," said Arrow. "They didn't fold. They stayed more with what got them here than we did during crucial times."