The main reason the University of Utah played Holy Cross in the first round of the Utah Classic Wednesday night rather than Alaska-Anchorage was because Utah athletic director Chris Hill wanted to avoid playing a Division II team. Playing a non-Division I team can hurt a team's chances for an NCAA berth at the end of the year.
Yet the only way the Utes were going to avoid facing a Division II team after the Seawolves' shocking win over Michigan in Wednesday's first game of the Utah Classic would be to lose to Holy Cross. And although it seemed at times as if the Utes were trying to give the game away, they came back to life down the stretch for a 97-84 victory before 11,400 at the Huntsman Center.The Utes will now meet Alaska-Anchorage at 8 p.m. Thursday night in the championship game, while Holy Cross and Michigan play the consolation contest at 6 p.m.
The Utes had several heroes in their victory over Holy Cross, starting with crowd favorite Walter Watts. The 300-pound former professional baseball player scored a career-high 18 points and pulled down 9 rebounds in 23 minutes of action. It was Watts who got the Utes off to a good start with 11 first-half points, then came in and scored seven points in crunch time with Mitch Smith on the bench in foul trouble.
"We needed a little scoring, and I just tried to play my role and help out down low," said Watts. "It was my best game of the year."
Other heroes for Utah included Mitch Smith, who had a double-15 with 15 points and 15 rebounds; Van Gray, who came out of hibernation to score 16 points, including four three-pointers in 34 minutes of action; Josh Grant, who scored 14 points and had 9 rebounds playing less than half the game; Jimmy Madison with a dozen points; and Jon Hansen and Keith Chapman, who both played key roles off the bench.
"We had a hero in every little aspect of the game, and that's a good indication of the team concept we have," said Ute Coach Lynn Archibald.
The Utes' superior depth was a big factor, according to Holy Cross Coach George Blaney.
"We had them in serious foul trouble, but to their credit their players came off the bench and did a tremendous job," he said.
Both Smith and Mark Lenoir fouled out and Grant, Madison and Watts all finished with four fouls, but the Utes didn't seem to be hurt because of the foul trouble.
"I'm not worried at all when I go out, because we've got so many weapons," said Utah's Smith.
The Utes came out playing intense basketball right from the start, perhaps inspired by Archibald's pre-game talk in which he reminded the team what could happen if they weren't ready to play, using Michigan as Exhibit A.
Leading 18-16, the Utes ran off seven straight points and before you could say "Holy Cross" the lead was 16 at 43-27. Then the Utes went into one of their famous lulls and by halftime the lead was cut to 46-36 after Dwight Pernell made nine straight points for his team.
In the second half, it didn't take long for the Crusaders to climb back into the battle and with 12:15 left, it was a tie game at 65-all after a Pernell jumper. The up-tempo Crusaders seemed to get a shot up within 10 seconds after getting the ball partly in a effort to counteract Utah's pressure defense.
"We were looking for good shots and I don't care if we get them on the first pass or the 15th pass if it's a good shot," said Blaney.
With the Crusaders running, the Utes answered by running more than they have all season. It allowed Gray and Lenoir to get some open shots off the transistion game, which is where they're at their best.
The game was still tied at 73 when Gray came down and popped in a three-pointer to put the Utes up for good. Watts made a free throw and then ran to the right spot for a rebound after missing the second and put it back in for a two-pointer. He did the same thing after Hansen missed the second of two free throws a few minutes later.
Leading 86-81, the Utes got a big play from Madison, who scored inside, was fouled and made the free throw. Holy Cross didn't score the last 3:21 of the game as Utah ran off the last six points of the game.
Pernell led the Crusader scoring with 24 points while freshman Leon Dickerson came off the bench to score 19, Grant Evans had 18 and Joe Viviano added 17.
The worst part of Utah's game was its free-throw shooting. The Utes made only 58 percent despite making their last five. Smith was an atrocious 5 of 12.
"If we'd made our free throws in the first half we would have buried them," said Archibald.
Although Alaska-Anchorage won't be any pushover, the 7-6 Utes are looking at the possibility of beginning the WAC season with a 9-6 record, something that looked improbable a couple of weeks ago.
"We have a lot of respect for Alaska," said Archibald. "We saw them in the (Great Alaska) Shootout and we saw what they did tonight. They have several players who could play for major colleges."
After Thursday's game, the Utes meet the University of San Diego on Monday before starting the WAC season at UTEP Thursday.