The Utah locker room was full of excitement Thursday night at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso. Not just because the Utes had crushed UTEP by 22 points. After all, this was the 24th time in 26 games that the Utes had celebrated victory. What else was new?
No, what got the Utes pumped up was the news of New Mexico's 83-62 loss to BYU. Suddenly the Utes' destiny was in their own hands and not in the hands of a Western Athletic Conference official flipping a coin.
Now the Utes know if they defeat the Lobos in tonight's sold-out ESPN-televised game (7:30 p.m.) at the Huntsman Center, they'll earn the No. 1 seed to next week's WAC tournament in Las Vegas. If the Lobos had won Thursday, the Utes would have needed a win on the court, plus a win in the coin flip, to take the top seed.
"Now it means first place, at least it's not a coin flip," said Utah coach Rick Majerus. "It certainly puts us in a situation where we can be the Western Division champs or whatever the hell that is."
Actually, it's the Mountain Division title the Utes will try to wrap up tonight. Even though the game has lost some of its luster thanks to Thursday night's shellacking, the Utes are excited about the game. They have been looking forward to it all month, even if they could never talk about it until after getting Thursday night's game out of the way.
For those who may have forgotten, the Utes felt like they were robbed earlier this month when they dominated the Lobos for 37 minutes, only to have several key calls go against them in the final three minutes, including two apparent fouls on Andre Miller when he was trapped in the backcourt.
"It's still frustrating because we played so well for so long and they did some things down the stretch that we didn't respond to," said Ute senior guard Drew Hansen. "This is a big game, the biggest we've played all year. We're glad we're in position to win a championship. We're just going to come out and play as hard as we can."
Ute center Michael Doleac said the earlier game in The Pit hasn't been forgotten. "Oh, not at all," he said. "The two teams I'd like to play most right now are New Mexico and Wyoming (the other team that beat the 24-2 Utes).
"This gives a chance to win it outright, and that's very exciting for us. But they're going to be excited to play us, too, so it's going to be a tough battle."
In New Mexico, folks are starting to panic a bit after consecutive losses of 29 and 21 points. A column in Friday's Albuquerque Journal said the question isn't whether the Lobos will beat Utah or get a good seed in the NCAA tournament, rather it's "will the suddenly fragile, out-of-balance, Lobos win another game before next November?"
The Lobos aren't the same team without guard Royce Olney, the hero of the Lobos' 77-74 win over Utah. He tore the ACL in his knee against TCU last week and is out for the season.
The Lobos miss Olney's 51.3-percent 3-point shooting, but the loss of Olney has exposed their lack of depth. The only reserve who averaged double-digit minutes was freshman Kevin Henry, and now he has been thrust into the role of starter. That leaves just Greg Davis and Ben Baum as reserves who have seen action in the majority of New Mexico's games.
With the easy win over UTEP Thursday, no Ute starter played more than Alex Jensen's 27 minutes, and everyone should be well-rested. The Utes will likely go 10 deep. Reserves Trace Caton and David Jackson are almost back to full strength, and Britton Johnsen is playing more minutes every game.
GAME NOTES: The winner of tonight's game will play at 10 p.m. MST Thursday in the first round of the WAC tournament in Las Vegas, possibly against UNLV. The loser plays at 1 p.m. MST . . . UNM coach Dave Bliss hasn't won at the Huntsman Center since his first season, when his Lobos slipped by the Utes 79-76. Since then the Lobos have lost eight straight . . . The average score of the eight Utah victories in the '90s is 75-60.
On Utes' floor
At the Huntsman Center
1997 - Utah 78, New Mexico 58
1996 - Utah 74, New Mexico 58
1995 - Utah 85, New Mexico 80
1994 - Utah 79, New Mexico 74
1993 - Utah 78, New Mexico 45
1992 - Utah 61, New Mexico 54
1991 - Utah 65, New Mexico 53
1990 - Utah 79, New Mexico 60