Whether it was John Lucas' pep talk or Rick Majerus' size 12 shoe or simply the kid's own pedigree that did it, nobody could be sure, but this much was certain: Utah's Josh Grant, for whatever reason, arrived Tuesday night.
Playing the game of his life, Grant did - well, what didn't he do? Rebounding, blocked shots, steals, assists, flawless ballhandling, and, oh yes, scoring - Grant did it all and personally willed the surprising Utes to a 71-62 victory over the University of Washington in Seattle.With Grant clearly in charge, the Utes held a 10-point lead through much of the first half. The Huskies took a brief one-point lead early in the second half, but Utah responded with a 14-0 run that was triggered by Grant and center Walter Watts. The Utes squelched the Huskies' hopes for a rally by making all 14 of their foul shots in the final 4 1/2 minutes.
Afterward, no one knew which was more surprising: the Utes' third win in four games - this from a team picked to finish eighth in the Western Athletic Conference - or Grant's performance.
"That's the best individual performance I've ever been around," marveled guard Tommy Connor. "And it wasn't selfish."
You can look it up. Grant's stat line: 30 points (11 of 18 from the field, 5 of 6 from three-point range), seven boards, one personal foul, three assists, three blocks, two steals, no turnovers.
"Josh was a man tonight," said Ute Coach Rick Majerus.
"We knew (Grant) was good," said Washington Coach Lynn Nance. "The major disappointment is that we knew about him ahead of time. We let the guy that we were anticipating do what he wanted to."
That Grant, whose two brothers and father all played major college basketball, could be a dominating player was no secret; it's just that he rarely has been - but then he is only a sophomore. Majerus believes Grant's intensity waxes and wanes.
"There's no question he has ability," says the coach. "He's just got to come to play every night. He played with heart tonight."
If Majerus has his way, Grant will play with heart every time out. The Utes' new coach, who bellows and even curses at all of his players, has picked on Grant more than anyone with the possible exception of Watts.
"That's because he knows (Grant) has so much talent," says Assistant Coach Jeff Judkins.
For Grant, it hasn't been easy. "It took me three days to get going," he says. "It shocked me. I've never had a coach who was so demanding and intense. But then Coach told me, `Listen to what I'm telling you - not what I'm saying.' "
Perhaps Majerus' harsh style will bring out the best in Grant. But even Majerus, who believes Grant is "still a year away from where we want him to be," was at a loss to explain Tuesday's performance. "John Lucas talked to the team this morning," said the coach. "I don't know if that had anything to do with it. Probably the biggest influence has been my size 12 shoe up his . . . ."
On the morning of the game, Lucas, the Houston Rockets' guard who was in town to play the Seattle SuperSonics, spoke to the Utes at their hotel for a half hour as a favor to Majerus, who once coached him in the NBA. "He spoke to them about being as good as you can be, about guarding against drugs, about being a good student and being competitive," says Majerus.
Grant seemed to take the advice. He played full tilt for the entire 36 minutes he was on the floor Tuesday. Roll the highlight film, please:
- Grant opened the game by sinking a four-footer and a 3-pointer while at the other end of the floor he simultaneously stuffed 6-8 Mike Hayward and ripped the ball away from him.
- Grant scored 19 points in the first half to put Utah up 33-25 at halftime, making 4 of 5 from three-point range.
- After the Huskies closed their deficit to 39-38, Grant drove to the glass in heavy traffic for a go-ahead bucket.
- With the Utes leading 44-41, Grant stole the ball, passed to a teammate, raced upcourt, took a pass and buried a 3-pointer.
- With the Utes leading 49-41, Washington rebounded a missed Utah shot, but then Grant slapped the ball loose from behind, picked it up and scored from behind the glass. Moments later he blocked a shot by center Mark West, as the Utes held the Huskies scoreless for more than six minutes.
"Josh took a step forward today," said Majerus.
So, for that matter, did several of his teammates. Take Watts, for instance. He had 13 points and six rebounds. He scored half of the Utes' points during their 14-0 run and converted a three-point play that broke a 41-all tie and gave Utah the lead for good.
"Walt decided he wanted to play tonight," said Majerus.
In the meantime, Keith Chapman had 13 points and nine boards, and Tommy Connor, bothered by a sprained ankle, had eight points and six assists.
The Utes made 18 of 22 free throws, shot 54 percent from the field and held their opponents to 43 percent shooting. Freshman Phil Dixon and Jon Hansen took turns guarding Eldridge Recasner, Washington's all-PAC 10 guard. He had 18 points, but made only 7 of 16 shots, as Washington, cheered by a mere 2,800 fans, fell to 3-2 for the season.
"This is a nice win for us," said Majerus, whose team faces Oregon in Eugene Thursday. "We took a step forward tonight."