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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah's Will Clyburn celebrates as the University of Utah defeats Boise State 86-84 as they play men's basketball Friday, Dec. 17, 2010, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — It was New Year's Eve and the Utah Utes were having a good time in Portland.

A layup by Chris Kupets had given them an 11-point lead with just over 16 minutes remaining.

All was going well.

Or so it seemed.

In a span of 3:11, the score was tied at 53-53. Less than two minutes later, the Utes fell behind.

"Somewhere, somehow it all went wrong after that," said center Jason Washburn.

Utah wound up dropping an 88-79 decision to the Pilots. Not exactly the way they wanted to end the year — sporting a 7-7 record and a four-game losing streak.

Assistant coach Jeff Smith acknowledged it would be real easy to dwell on the negatives and where the Utes are in terms of wins and losses. Smith will be coaching the Utes tonight while head coach Jim Boylen tends to a family illness issue.

That, however, is not Utah's mindset entering tonight's Mountain West Conference opener at Air Force.

"It's a brand new year — 2010 is over, 2011 is started," Smith said. "Everybody in our league is 0-0 and now it's just a matter of — and it sounds so cliché — of taking it one game at a time, one day at a time."

It fits head coach Jim Boylen's approach, he explained, of just trying to improve each day.

"They haven't fought coach on one thing. They've bought in and they know what they need to do," Smith said. "It's just a matter of as time goes, continuing to get better."

Determined to develop their own identity, the Utes are eager to turn the page.

"It's a new start. Everything else is behind us," said junior forward Will Clyburn. "We're all about conference play right now and that's all we can really focus on."

Clyburn, who leads the team with 19.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, has his sights set on the big prize. He's chasing the conference championship.

"That's what I'm here for and that's what we are going to do," Clyburn said. "We're going after this conference championship. Everybody's going to put their heart in it and we're going to bring it home."

The schedule-maker, however, didn't exactly pave a golden-brick road for the Utes. After the opener at Air Force, they return home to face nationally ranked San Diego State on Saturday and BYU on Tuesday.

"It's going to be a tough week," Clyburn said. "It's going to be a real tough week, but we are going to get it done."

Utah's confidence, he explained, comes from the coaching staff. They continue to believe in the players.

"We feel like we're close ... We feel good. You know it's 0-0 now," said senior captain Jay Watkins. "This is a new year going into conference. So everything that happened last year and the last four games, you know, we put that behind us."

Up ahead, though, is an Air Force team that is off to a 9-4 start. The Falcons, who are 7-1 at home, have a trio of double-figure scorers in Michael Lyons (12.6 ppg), Tom Fow (12.3 ppg) and Taylor Broekhuis (11.7 ppg).

The Utes, however, counter with Clyburn and the hot hand of Kupets, who is coming off a career-high 20 points at Portland. Utah made 11 3-pointers in the game and shot a season-high 52.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Smith said it was without question the team's best offensive performance of the season and something, obviously, to build on.

So, too, is a six-game winning streak the Utes have against the Falcons.

That, however, doesn't make the task ahead any easier.

"It's going to be a challenge for us," Washburn said. "And we're excited."

MWC opener

Utah (7-7) at Air Force (9-4)

Today, 8 p.m.

TV: The Mtn. Radio: 700AMUtes at a glance

Overall record: 7-7

Best win: An 86-84 victory over Boise State at the Huntsman Center on Dec. 17.

Worst loss: A 67-64 loss to San Diego at the Diamondhead Classic in Hawaii on Christmas Day.

Reason for optimism ... Utah opens Mountain West Conference play at Air Force. The Utes have won their past six meetings with the Falcons.

Cause for concern ... The Utes have lost four straight games, falling to Butler, Hawaii and two West Coast Conference teams (San Diego, Portland).

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com