After three days and seven games, we're right back where we started. Utah and BYU, which finished 1-2, respectively, during the regular season, will meet in the finals of the Western Athletic Conference post-season basketball tournament this evening in a nationally televised showdown. This time they have moved their instate rivalry to a neutral court in another state to meet each other for the third time in three weeks.
It was meant to be. First BYU beats Hawaii in overtime in the final second with a ball that was determined to roll in. Then eighth-ranked Utah beats the University of Wyoming right there on its home court 69-63, despite ward-ball free throw shooting.Like nearly every game in this tournament, the Ute game went to the wire. With the score tied at 62-all, Walter Watts tipped in a missed shot by teammate Jimmy Soto to put Utah on top for good with 2:06 left in the game. In the final minute, Byron Wilson and Soto combined to make 5 of 6 free throws, while the Cowboys missed three of four, and there it was: for the third time in as many tries this year, the Utes had defeated the Cowboys.
And Utah, which owns a remarkable 28-2 record - a WAC record - has reached the finals for the first time in the eight-year history of the WAC tournament.
"This was a good win," said Coach Rick Majerus. "This was not a tournament win; this was a road win. There's a world of difference."
The Utes did it the hard way, making only 21 of 33 free throws (63.6 percent). "Our foul shooting was bad," said Majerus. "It could have cost us the game." There were other blunders. Watts, for instance, went from goat to hero in a matter of minutes. Early in the second half, he missed a breakaway dunk, losing the ball in midair as he went to the hoop all alone with a steal. Majerus angrily yanked him from the game.
"He just tried to be cool," said Majerus. "If it wasn't for the team, I would have reamed him."
"I slipped," said Watts. "I knew I was in trouble on the way up. I was looking around, hoping somebody would help me. I was thinking I hope it's not a close game."
But Watts made up for the mistake. When the 5-foot-7 Soto's shot missed in heavy inside traffic, he flew in from outside the lane to put the ball back in for the go-ahead bucket.
"Soto was driving to the hoop and I thought he was going to kick it back to me," said Watts. "Then I saw he was going to take it himself, and I knew he was going to be in trouble, so I looked for an opening and got the tip."
From the opening tipoff, it was a seesaw battle, just as it had in their previous two meetings this season (both of which were won by Utah). Trailing 13-10 early in the game, the Utes went on a tear behind some of their less heralded players. While all-conference stars Josh Grant and Watts were tied up inside, Craig Rydalch made a three-point play and a layup to put Utah ahead 15-14. Soto came up with a pair of baskets, one a trey, to widen the margin to three. Then it was Phil Dixon's turn to bury back-to-back treys, which gave Utah a 26-20 lead.
The Utes twice took eight-point leads late in the half, but the Cowboys rallied - thanks to five missed free throws by the Utes - to cut their lead to one point in the final minutes of the half. At halftime, the Utes led, but barely, 40-38, and exactly half of their points had come from three reserves - Rydalch, Soto and Dixon.
The Utes opened the second half by running off seven unanswered points to take a nine-point lead. Then it was the Cowboys who ran off eight straight points to cut the score to 47-45, which prompted Utah to make another move. Watts came up with another steal and this time scored on a layup. Byron Wilson was falling to the floor when he managed to throw the ball in for another score. Grant buried a jumper from the wing.
By now the Utes' lead was 54-48 with eight minutes left in the game - this despite missing eight of their previous 12 free throws.
In a game of streaks, the Cowboys made their inevitable rally. Maurice Alexander made a jump shot that, after being re-examined on TV replays officials converted from a two-point make to three points. While everybody was celebrating, Tyrone Tate raced coast to coast past all but a couple of Wyoming defenders for a bucket (actually a goal tend on Slater), but moments later, Reggie Page's dunk tied the score.
Shortly after Watts missed a pair of foul shots with 3:59 remaining, Alexander made a pair of foul shots to tie the score at 62 with 3:41 remaining. Moments later, Soto committed a turnover and Wyoming had a chance for the lead, but Paris Bryant missed a layup. That opened the way for Watts' big tipin. When Alexander missed an NBA-distance trey attempt, Soto rbounded the ball. All that was left was to kill the clock.
For the record, Grant (13 points and 10 rebounds), M'Kay McGrath (11 points) and Watts (12 points, 8 boards) led the way for the Utes. The Utes also controlled Wyoming's all-conference center Reggie Slater, again. The WAC's second leading scorer (19 points per game) and leading rebounder (10.6), he had just 6 points this outing - following 6- and 10-point outings against Utah earlier this year.
Said Watts, whose team has already beaten BYU once, "It will be fun to play BYU again, on ESPN and everything."