The plot just keeps getting thicker and thicker. In the latest episode in the Misadventures of the University of Utah basketball team Saturday, the coach fainted and was hauled off to the hospital, where doctors ordered him to his hotel room for the night.
Meanwhile, back at the Huntsman Center, the Runnin' Utes, pretending the old man was still glowering at them from the sideline, overcame an 11-point deficit in the second half to defeat New Mexico 61-54.Thus, another weird week of Ute hoops ends with Utah one game out of first place at the half-way mark in the Western Athletic Conference season.
Ten days ago the Utes were in seventh place. Since then they have won four straight games, most of them the hard way. They beat Wyoming and UTEP on the final shot of the game, and on Saturday they won only after trailing New Mexico most of the night.
The Utes might never have pulled out the victory if not for the tenacious play of center Paul Afeaki, who totaled 17 points and 12 rebounds, both career highs. It was Afeaki who put the Utes ahead to stay with five minutes left in the contest.
The victory gives the Utes a record of 15-5 overall and 5-3 in WAC play. The Lobos are 11-9, 5-2 and sorry they ever set foot in Utah (they also lost to BYU on Thursday).
"It's been a crucial week," said forward M'Kay McGrath. "We got back in the conference race.What happens now remains to be seen."
The Utes' next four games are on the road.
On Saturday night the Utes were celebrating victory again after another narrow escape and more turmoil. Rick Majerus, the team's hard-driving head coach, collapsed Saturday morning at his hotel and was benched for the night (see sidebar).
The Utes then called on the second string, Joe Cravens, whom someone dubbed the Steve Young of the coaching set. As Cravens said, "We've rehearsed this one before." He acted as head coach for most of the 1989-90 season while Majerus was recovering from heart surgery.
Such problems are nothing new for the Utes, especially this season. Star forward Josh Grant had season-ending knee surgery. Craig Rydalch had ankle surgery and injured his shooting wrist. Earlier this week, Deon Mims, the team's would-be future center, underwent knee surgery that could end his career. And now Majerus, again.
Following a light afternoon workout, Cravens told his players of Majerus' collapse.
"We decided just to pretend he was here," said center Paul Afeaki. "We had him in mind."
"All the groundwork was laid," said Cravens. "Coach Majerus had made the game plan. All we had to do was push the buttons."
The sixth largest crowd (15,414) in Ute history gathered in the Huntsman Center Saturday, but when the game began and Cravens pushed the buttons, nothing worked.
The Utes missed 13 of their first 14 shots. The Lobos, led by guard Ike Williams (17 points), opened an 11-point lead late in the first half. By halftime, Utah had cut the gap to 29-26, but then Williams scored seven straight points early in the second half to put New Mexico up by 11 again, 44-33.
"We just weren't shooting well," said Cravens. "We were searching for someone who could score."
They found two in Phil Dixon and Paul Afeaki. Dixon scored eight straight points, including two three-point shots, to cut UNM's lead to 44-41, and the Ute rally was under way.
"We got a mixup on who we were supposed to be guarding, they scored eight straight points, and it became a tight game again," said UNM coach Dave Bliss.
Afeaki took over from there. He scored the Utes' next seven points while jawing with the Lobos' Khari Jaxon. "You can't stop me!" they snarled at each other.
Afeaki tied the score at 46 with 7:30 remaining. Then he scored with a left-handed half-hook and drew a foul off Jaxon. His free throw gave Utah a 49-47 lead. With 4:58 remaining, Afeaki made a pair of free throws to put Utah ahead for good, 51-49.
"I felt this was my game, because coach was out," said Afeaki. "I wanted to do it for him."
When guard Tyrone Tate stole the ball from Willie Banks with 1:43 remaining, UNM's fate was sealed. The Utes made 12 of their 16 free throws down the stretch.
"We certainly had our chances," said Bliss.