They say lightning never strikes twice. But Utah's Keith Van Horn disproved the theory Friday night at the Western Athletic Conference semifinals.
Van Horn sank a jump shot from almost the identical spot he scored the night before, at the buzzer - again - to give Utah a stunning 72-70 victory over New Mexico at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Utes will play TCU, an upset winner over Tulsa tonight at 8 p.m. MST for the official WAC championship.After having a miserable game in which he was just 4 for 14 from the field, Van Horn came up big for the Utes for the second straight night as he corralled a missed shot by Andre Miller, then floated in an eight-footer as the buzzer sounded. It was like deja vu as the Utes celebrated wildly at midcourt.
"I haven't made a last-second shot since high school - I'm just lucky they came at a good time," said Van Horn. "Hopefully tomorrow night we won't need another last-second shot."
The shot climaxed a classic contest between two nationally ranked teams - the No. 3 ranked Utes and the 14th-ranked Lobos. The loud crowd was divided pretty evenly between Utah and New Mexico fans and the top players such as Van Horn and New Mexico's Charles Smith and Kenny Thomas were overshadowed by the likes of Utah's Miller and New Mexico's Lamont Long.
Andre Miller scored a career-high 21 points, while Long led the Lobos with 23. Michael Doleac added 15 for Utah, while Clayton Shields and David Gibson both had 13 for UNM.
Van Horn struggled all evening, missing all four 3-pointers and 10 field goals in all before the winning bucket, which gave him 10 for the game. But he came through when he was needed most as he grabbed the loose ball and let fly with his buzzer-beater.
"I was just trying to go to the offensive boards - Mike kept it alive and I just picked up the garbage," said Van Horn.
By the time the late game tipped off, the miracle win of the night before when Van Horn beat the buzzer and SMU, was long forgotten. A Ute coach before the game said the main goal was to "play harder."
The Utes did just that in limiting the Lobos top two players Smith and Thomas to four and nine points, respectively, and a combined 4 of 17 from the field.
In the second half, the Utes built up a seven-point lead at 48-41 as Hanno Mottola scored a couple of baskets off the bench before the Lobos fought back to take the lead at 51-50 on a dunk by Thomas, his first field goal of the game. From there, the teams traded baskets until Utah opened up a 61-56 lead as Miller scored five straight points and Doleac added an inside basket.
New Mexico came back to tie it at 61-all as Shields hit a three-pointer and Thomas added a pair of free throws. Doleac and Thomas traded baskets and then Ben Caton and Shields traded 3-pointers to make it 66 and Miller tied the game at 70 with a drive with 59 seconds left.
Thomas traveled with 36 seconds left when he had an open lane to the basket. The Utes played for one shot and Miller tried a runner from the left side with five seconds left before Van Horn grabbed the ball.
The Utes took a 35-33 halftime lead in a strange half in which only six fouls were called.
The first foul of the entire half came at the 9:10 mark when New Mexico was whistled. Utah's first foul came at the 6:23 mark when Drew Hansen hacked Clayton Shields on a shot.
The biggest lead for either team was six points when the Lobos sank four straight 3-pointers capped by two in a row by Lamont Long to make it 18-12 with 12 minutes left. The Utes fought back and went ahead at 22-20 on a drive by Andre Miller. Another basket by Long, who had 10 first-half points put UNM up 29-26 before Hansen hit a pair of free throws, Miller made a tip-in and another drive. After Royce Olney sank a 3-pointer, Doleac sank a three for the Utes to give the Utes the halftime edge.
The Lobos' Smith and Thomas combined for just one point in the first half as Thomas went 0 for 5 and made a single foul shot, while Smith was 0 for 2. Miller led the Utes with 10 first half points, while Doleac added seven.
GAME NOTES: During the regular season, the Utes and Lobos split, New Mexico winning 87-71 at Albuquerque and Utah winning 78-58 at Salt Lake . . . Last year, Utah swept the season series, but was beaten in the WAC final at Albuquerque 64-60 . . . The Utah-UNM game was televised on ESPN as will tonight's championship game . . . While Utah and New Mexico are in the NCAA tournament for sure along with Tulsa, there are five WAC teams with 20 wins that are "on the bubble" - TCU, Hawaii, UNLV, Fresno State and Colorado State. Only one, if any, will likely make the NCAAs and the rest will hope for NIT. TCU can wrap up a berth, of course, with a win tonight.