So what do you know. Rick Majerus is finally going to the Sweet 16 at the tender age of 43, one year removed from bypass heart surgery. On Sunday afternoon, his underrated, undertalented, undersized University of Utah Runnin' Utes took on Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Nineteen lead changes, 14 ties and two overtimes later, the Utes - Team Destiny in your program - were 85-84 winners.
And everywhere you looked there were heroes. There was Walter Watts, blood running from above his left eye, making a monster dunk and a rebound shot in the second overtime, then adding a free throw to provide the final margin of victory - this after shooting goose eggs in the first half. There was Tyrone Tate, the goat in a loss last weekend, driving for a basket as the shot clock expired in the second overtime and then diving into the MSU bench to save a crucial would-be turnover. There was Jimmy Soto throwing in a trey and burying a pair of foul shots in the first overtime. But at game's end, no one stood taller than Utah's Josh Grant and MSU's Steve Smith, who waged a breathless duel for 50 minutes.Grant, playing the best game of his life (see story below), totaled 29 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 steals. Smith had 28 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal.
"It was probably the best game I've been involved with in my life," said Majerus. "I've never seen so many twists and turns in a game."
And now for the game every Ute has been waiting for - or dreading, take your pick - Utah versus No. 1-ranked, 32-0 Nevada-Las Vegas, Thursday night in Seattle in the semifinals of the West Regional.
The Utes will be huge underdogs, but what else is new? "They have by far the better athletes," said Grant. "What I want to know, to tell you the truth, is how coach Majerus will do it (play Vegas)."
Indeed, all season long Majerus - this maniacal little genius, this mad professor of hoops - has locked himself in his Salt Lake hotel room with his videotapes and his notes, working late into the night, only to emerge with a masterful game plan, fairly rubbing his hands together and snarling.
"We have a lot of faith in him," said Grant.
Which is understandable. About the only thing Majerus has missed this season was his estimation of both his players and his own coaching.
"In October, I was telling my buddies that maybe we could make the NIT," he was saying Sunday. In January, he was still hoping just to break .500. "These kids believe they can win," he says.
And how. The Utes, picked to finish sixth in the Western Athletic Conference (say it again, one more time), now own a 30-3 - THIRTY and three - record. Along the way they have collected a conference championship, two NCAA tournament victories and a Sweet 16 date with the defending national champions.
"Everyone has been surprised," says guard Jimmy Soto. "Coach Majerus was planning on another year."
It has never been easy, though. In 18 games this season the Utes have trailed in the second half. Four games went to overtime. Something always goes wrong, but something else always goes right. On Sunday, against Michigan State, the Utes missed 18 free throws. During one stretch at the end of the first half, they missed seven of eight foul shots, with Watts whiffing on four shots and Soto two.
Thus, a pattern was set: The Utes would continually open the door for their rivals (somebody said it was MSU's green uniforms, since it was, after all, St. Patrick's Day), but it worked the other way, as well.
Back and forth it went. Utah went up by five to start the game (the day's biggest lead, as it turned out). MSU went up by four at halftime. Utah took a one-point lead to start the second half. MSU took a four-point lead midway through the second half. Then a break. Up by three with five minutes remaining, the Spartans drew three fouls and missed three shots all in one possession. Grant made a trey, and from there, well, everything got crazy.
- With 29 seconds left in regulation, Utah held a seemingly safe 64-60 lead, but then forward Matt Steigenga made a layup at almost the same time Byron Wilson was whistled for an off-the-ball foul on Smith. With 24 seconds left, Smith made the foul shots to complete a four-point play, and the score was tied, forcing overtime.
- With 24 seconds left in the first overtime period, Soto made a pair of free throws to give Utah a 75-73 lead. When MSU center Mike Peplowski missed a free throw with 6.6 seconds remaining, the game seemed all but finished. But on his second attempt, Peplowski intentionally missed the shot. The rebound came off long, falling into the hands of teammate Jon Zulauf, who scored. More overtime.
"Suddenly you think fate's with you," said MSU coach Jud Heathcote. Not quite.
- With 29 seconds left in the second overtime, Craig Rydalch split a pair of free throws, leaving Utah with an 84-81 lead and giving the Spartans one more chance. Zulauf and Andy Penick missed. Now it was Watts' turn at the foul line, with 10 seconds left. He made one, missed the second. As it turned out, that was just enough, barely. Smith made a three-point shot in the closing seconds, cutting the final gap to one point.
"There were lucky chances both ways," said Majerus.
As expected, Sunday's matchup was a battle between Grant and Smith, two of the gangliest, most wonderfully versatile players in the game. The Spartans defended Grant man-to-man, with 6-7 forward Dwayne Stephens. He was rarely enough. In one flurry to start the game, Grant posted up for a layup, scored off an alley-oop pass, hit two treys and a turnaround jumper from the wing. Grant also had a 10-minute scoreless streak to start the second half, and he spent the final 4:21 of the first half on the bench in foul trouble. During that spell, the Utes scored just three points.
In the meantime, the Utes had no more success stopping Smith, even though they tried a variety of methods. Before the game, Majerus told Wilson, Phil Dixon and Craig Rydalch that they would split time defending Smith. Wilson had early success but got into foul trouble. Phil Dixon "wasn't playing well," said Majerus, and played just 13 minutes. Rydalch had moderate success, but Majerus wound up trying McGrath on Smith to see how a taller player would fare, and later put Tate on him in overtime. That's five defenders.
When it mattered most, the Utes finally stopped Smith. In certain situations, particularly late in the game, Smith dribbles the perimeter looking for a shot, often utilizing screens at the top of the lane. The Utes countered by double-teaming Smith whenever he got the ball in such cases and by extending (pushing) his screens farther away from the basket. Perhaps that, as much as anything, explains why Smith whiffed twice at the end of regulation and three times in overtime.
Still, Majerus was a believer. "Smith's the best we've seen," he said. "We threw everything at him, and he still came at us."
Afterward, MSU coach Jud Heathcote grumped about the Utes' rough play - "I thought Utah did an awfully good job of holding, pushing and shoving," he said. "There was an awful lot of contact that wasn't called" - but it sounded strange coming from a man who boasts of the rough-and-tumble Big Ten Conference.
For their part, the Utes watched UNLV beat Georgetown and then flew home, where some 300 fans greeted their late (10 p.m.) arrival. For a half-hour they mingled with fans, perhaps knowing there will be no other time for celebrating. The Utes leave for Seattle today. Next up: Vegas, in the Kingdome.