It's been a full decade since the University of Utah won a basketball game here on the plains of Wyoming. And when a victory finally did come Tuesday night at the Arena-Auditorium, where the Utes had never won, it happened in the most unusual of circumstances.
The Utes' 82-80 victory over the Cowboys moved them to 3-2 in Western Athletic Conference play and 12-8 overall. But who'd have ever thought the Utes could win like they did - with several players sick with the flu, with three top players on the bench in foul trouble much of the game, with a freshman walk-on playing point guard almost half the game and by hitting 10 straight free throws down the stretch.The Utes have been decimated by sickness, fighting a flu virus that has bothered nearly every team member the past week. Freshman Josh Grant who had a temperature of 101 earlier in the day, didn't decide until game time if he could play. But he did, going 34 minutes with a career-high 13 rebounds and 10 points before lying down on the locker room floor in complete exhaustion for several minutes afterward. Keith Chapman, who had missed practice for two days, came through with a pair of key foul shots at the end. Several other players were hacking and sniffling afterward and one player, Bill Perkins, was back in Salt Lake, too sick to make the trip.
Three of the team's key players, Mitch Smith, Boo Singletary, and Mark Lenoir were in foul trouble all night and each sat out about half the game. All three eventually fouled out - Smith and Singletary with seven minutes left.
The Cinderella story belonged to walk-on freshman Kurt Christensen, who didn't even make the last Ute trip two weeks ago. All he did was direct the Ute offense in flawless fashion for 17 minutes in relief of the foul-plagued Lenoir, committing no turnovers, and putting in three key baskets in the second half.
Perhaps the most amazing thing of all was Utah's foul shooting down the stretch. The Utes have been anything but confident in the clutch this year, but they hit 10 straight foul shots in the final 1:24 when Wyoming was making a late rally.
"Anytime you go on the road and win in the WAC, it's great," said a smiling Ute Coach Lynn Archibald. "I was really happy with our bench tonight. A freshman like Kurt comes in on the road and doesn't make any turnovers. Keith Chapman has the flu and hits some key free throws. And Van Gray gets those free throws at the end. When you have guys coming off the bench like that, it shows you what a real team is."
Another guy who came off the bench and "played great" according to Archibald, was Jimmy Madison, who scored a career-high 26 points and took over for the Utes down the stretch. The senior from Yuma, Arizona hit a clutch 8-foot baseline jumper with 51 seconds left to put the Utes up by seven and sank a couple of foul shots with 31 seconds left to give the Utes a six-point lead.
"It feels great to get out of here with a win," said Madison, who had only beaten Wyoming once in his career in seven previous tries. "I think our defense is what really got it going for us."
Madison's defensive assignment was the Cowboys' leading scorer Robyn Davis (21 ppg) and he did it well holding him to 15 points on a woeful 6 of 23 shooting.
"I tried to keep the ball out of his hands and put some pressure on him," said Madison.
If ever there was a good time for the Utes to win up here, this was the year. The Cowboys have a young team and no longer have Leckner, Dembo, Sommers and Co. - those guys who have haunted the Utes the last four years. Then on Tuesday morning the Utes were happy to find out that starting forward Clauzell Williams was being sidelined because of academic problems.
After leading by as much as 17-11 early on, the Utes fell behind 32-27 when Rod Tyson hit a turnaround with 3:31 left. However, Utah went on an 11-1 run, capped by Jon Hansen's layup at the buzzer to make it 38-33 at halftime. In the locker room, Archibald exhorted his team to play tough defense and to "take it to the hole constantly" against the smaller Cowboys.
The Utes did just that early in the second half forcing Wyoming Coach Benny Dees to call two quick timeouts as the lead went to 46-38.
Utah kept going inside to Madison and Singletary and moved the lead to 57-47. When Christensen scored on a drive with 7:32 left, the Utes enjoyed their biggest lead at 65-54. But within a minute both Smith and Singletary fouled out and the lead started to dwindle.
With the score 70-66 and just 1:35 left, Madison made a bad pass off the press that was intercepted. But the Pokes' Kenny Smith lost the ball in traffic going the other way to keep the Cowboys from climbing within two. Then Lenoir made a pair of foul shots, starting the string of 10 straight.
Chapman, who was still weak from the flu, sank a pair of free throws 12 seconds later to make it 74-66. But Wyoming's Smith canned a three-pointer to cut the lead to five at the 1:02 mark. It was back to seven after Madison canned his baseline jumper with 51 seconds left.
Reggie Fox, who had been held in check by Hansen most of the night, then scored seven straight Wyoming points, on a tip-in off a missed foul shot, two free throws and a three-pointer with 15 seconds left to make it 80-77. But Gray, who had swished two foul shots with 20 seconds left, hit two more at the 12-second mark to ice it for the Utes.
Christensen, who just a year ago was playing for Highland High School, didn't seem affected by the pressure either as he directed the point for the Utes for nearly half the game.
"I was just trying not to think about anything," said Christensen. "I tried to block out the crowd and go with my instincts. This is unbelieveable to me."
Now the Utes will try for a sweep on the trip when they play league-leading Colorado State Thursday night in Fort Collins. The Rams are 3-1 in WAC play and 10-5 overall after defeating Air Force on the road Monday night.