A week ago, Hanno Mottola was walking around the Salt Lake airport with the smile of a lifetime. He was clinging to a copy of Sports Illustrated on which he was the cover boy.
Talk about excitement. Mottola could barely contain his jubilation as he showed his teammates the magazine. Someone actually cracked a joke about the SI cover jinx.That someone should have been more selective with his words.
Five days later, Mottola played perhaps the worst game of his life. Against West Virginia on Thursday, he scored just four points in 20 minutes. When the game was on the line, Utah's third-leading scorer was on the bench.
Following that game, Mottola told senior co-captain Mike Doleac he wouldn't let the team down again. Andre Miller said the team thought about burning a copy of Sports Illustrated just to be safe.
Doleac had something else in mind to relax Mottola. The two went to dinner the night before the game, just to talk.
Doleac said it wasn't that big of a deal, but nothing much was said. No lecture or uplifting pep talk, they were too busy eating.
"It wasn't an issue anymore, Hanno just had a bad game," Doleac said. "Everyone has a bad game some time. He just relaxed himself today, he's a great player and a smart kid."
Mottola kept his word and the SI jinx didn't last.
Against the Wildcats, he scored 14 points in 27 minutes. Most of his points came off layups, which resulted from him beating the `more athletic' Wildcat defenders off the dribble.
"I had a real tough day against West Virginia," Mottola said. "But none of us were afraid today, that was the key."
Most of his buckets came at opportune times as well.
With Utah up 29-20 at halftime, talk around the Pond was whether the Utes could withstand the eventual Arizona rally. It's been the Wildcats' forte all year. Arizona had a 27-0 run against Kansas State earlier this year, and then reeled off a 27-2 run against Illinois State to advance to the Sweet 16.
Mottola scored Utah's first four second-half points, but his biggest bucket came with 16:36 remaining.
Arizona had scored four straight points, and appeared poised for its game-breaking run. Then Mottola tipped in Miller missed free throw. the lead was back to 10 and it never dropped below there again.