In front of the largest crowd in three years, including a collection of the greatest players in the program's history, the Utah basketball team nearly laid a giant egg Saturday afternoon at the Huntsman Center.
Making poor passes, watching the ball slip through their fingers, missing easy shots and failing to score for nearly seven minutes while falling behind 11-0 was not the way the Utes and new coach Jim Boylen wanted to show off the Ute program.
"We were tentative ... we were tight ... we seemed paralyzed at times," Boylen said.
But thanks to a top performance by Lawrence Borha, a dominating three-minute stretch by Kim Tille and huge 3-pointers from the same spot by Johnnie Bryant and Shaun Green, the Utes were able to regroup and send 14,653 fans home happy with a 72-66 victory.
"We hung in there and got a big, big win for our program, a big, big win for our tradition and a big win for our league play and moving forward," Boylen said.
The Utes' victory leapfrogged them past the Aztecs (6-5) to 6-4 in Mountain West Conference play and to 15-8 overall. It was the Utes' fourth straight victory and fifth in their last six games.
"We were so tight in the first half," Boylen said. "We were trying to do the right things. I've put so much pressure on my team this year, and for this game I doubled it, tripled it, to try to get them to understand what Utah across your chest means. It was a step for us."
Borha led all scorers with 22 points, his best performance in more than two months, while Bryant scored 17 and Luke Nevill added 10.
The Aztecs got a terrific game from freshman guard D.J. Gay, who dropped in 21 points, including 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range. Leading scorer Lorenzo Wade had 16 points but only managed to make 4-of-15 shots from the field.
Perhaps intimidated by all the ex-Ute players on hand for the 100-year celebration, including the 16-man All-Century team, the Utes got off to a simply awful start.
The Utes missed their first six shots and committed six turnovers before they even scored. It took a steal by Bryant for a layup to get the Utes on the board with 13:20 left.
The Utes chipped away behind the shooting of Borha and took their first lead at 19-18. The lead changed hands six times before the Utes took a 28-26 lead into halftime.
After the extended halftime, when the All-Century team was honored along with 100 other former players, the Utes came out slow in the second half and fell behind 37-30 as the Aztecs sank three quick 3-pointers in a two-minute stretch. They still trailed 48-47 with nine minutes left when Tillie came alive and turned the game in Utah's favor.
After missing his own shot, Tillie ran in to grab the rebound, falling to the floor in the process. Then after Drca missed a shot, Tillie was there for the rebound basket that put the Utes up for good at 49-48.
At the other end, Tille stepped in front of an Aztec for a steal, was fouled and converted both free throws.
"I thought he was playing a little selfish," Boylen said. "I told him either you're going to dive on the loose ball and rebound the ball or you're not going to play. I give him credit for changing his mind-set, because he was the difference in the second half."
Then came the first of two big 3-pointers. With 6:24 left, Bryant got the ball on the left angle with the shot clock suddenly down to 3 seconds. The crowd, noticing the shot clock, was yelling "shoot," so Bryant raised and sank the three over Wade to put the Utes up six.
"I looked at the clock and didn't want to force something, so I said, 'I'm shooting a three' and it dropped for me," he said.
"That thing hung in the air for like five minutes," said Boylen. "That was a big shot."
The next big 3-pointer came with 1:27 left and the Utes holding a tenuous 62-58 lead. This time the clock was down to 4 seconds when Shaun Green sank a 3-pointer from the same spot as Bryant's Green's only points of the game.
"I'm proud of Shaun Green," Boylen said. "I've been on him to hit shots late. I've been all over him about that, and he finally hit one."
After that, it was up to the Utes' free throw shooting, and they came through with 7-of-8 in the final minute, the only miss being Bryant's second of the season.
In the end, Boylen was happy his team started the game so tight, believe it or not.
"I'm really thankful we were tight," he said. "You know why? It means something now. Utah across your chest means something. If you don't care, you don't get tight. We fought through it. I'd rather have a tight group of guys to start a big game than a loose bunch that don't care."Next up for the Utes is a rematch with BYU on Wednesday night in Provo, followed by a home game against New Mexico on Saturday.
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