The reward wasn't exactly enticing- a meeting 24 hours later with the red-hot and well-rested Colorado State Rams, winners of nine consecutive games.
On the other hand, for most players anyway, it had to be better than the alternative - no more basketball this season.Those were the prospects that faced Utah and San Diego State, who met in a runoff game to open the Western Athletic Conference playoffs Wednesday night. The two teams traded turnovers and missed shots for much of the ragged affair before the Utes emerged with a 70-57 victory before a sparse, yet boisterous crowd of 5,508 at the Huntsman Center.
The Utes, who moved back to .500 at 16-16 with the victory, will face WAC regular-season champ Colorado State Thursday at 9:35 p.m. in the final game of the WAC quarterfinals. San Diego State is done for the season at 12-17.
"This was an important game for us very obviously, because we get to play tomorrow," said Ute Coach Lynn Archibald. "I thought the kids played real hard. I was happy with the way we pushed the ball up the court and got some easy baskets. That was a real key for us, the way we pushed the ball up the court."
The Utes had plenty of chances to push the ball upcourt since the generous Aztecs committed 22 turnovers. The Ute stat crew was almost as generous, crediting the Utes with 16 steals on those 22 miscues.
Josh Grant, who had a fine game with 19 points, including three 3-pointers, had six of Utah's 16 steals. Mitch Smith, who scored 15 points and had 10 rebounds, also had a couple of steals as he played like his collegiate basketball life depended on it, which of course it did. One time Smith chased a loose ball half the length of the court before sliding into the cement wall behind the basket. He simply got up, shrugged it off and went back to work.
"We played hard tonight and we've got to do that tomorrow," said Smith, who would like to see his fine career end on a postive note. "The key is shooting the basketball and playing sound defensively. They (CSU) don't beat themselves."
Much of the post-game talk centered on the Rams, who were at the Huntsman Center Wednesday night, watching their next opponent.
"Colorado State is a very solid basketball team," said Archibald. "They're so patient with us, that we lose our concentration. They believe in what they're doing and wait until they get an open shot. The key to beating them is not letting them get in the one-and-one because they're very good foul shooters."
For Utah it will be a chance to get back at the Rams who spoiled the Utes NCAA hopes last year with a 78-68 victory in the WAC quarterfinals at Provo. The Utes had beaten the Rams twice before that game, just like the Rams have beaten the Utes twice already this year.
Wednesday's game started off like a replay of the first Utah-SDSU game when the Utes raced to a 15-0 lead on their way to an 80-61 win. This time the lead only reached 7-0. But all of a sudden Utah went more than four minutes without scoring and the Aztecs grabbed the lead.
After the Utes came back to take a 15-10 lead, they promptly had another four-minute drought and 11 straight Aztec points made it 21-15 with 7:40 to play. But the Utes made a run of their own right before the half and took a 34-28 halftime lead.
At 42-34, the Utes looked to be breaking away, but as usual, they couldn't stand the prosperity and started missing layups and throwing the ball away. With nine minutes left, Tony Ross had a chance to tie the game at 49, but he missed the jumper. At the other end Grant missed a 5-footer and Smith missed a tip before Smith finally put it in.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Grant and Gray gave the Utes some breathing room, but it wasn't until Grant picked Shawn Bell's pocket in the backcourt and Mark Lenoir did the same to Sam Johnson that the Ute rested easy with a 66-54 lead with 2:10 left.
Tony Ross led the Aztecs scoring with 14 points, while Bell and Mitch McMullen each had 13.
The winner of tonight's Utah-CSU game will play at 9:35 p.m. again on Friday night against the winner of the BYU-Hawaii game.