Following Friday afternoon's practice, the University of Utah basketball team held an informal players-only meeting in the gym and agreed on a plan. They vowed to concentrate on defense against Hawaii the following night just to please the old man - Coach Rick Majerus, who relishes defense almost as much as a side order of pasta.
That's just what Utah did to beat Hawaii 59-53 in the Huntsman Center Saturday night. The Utes held the Rainbows to a 30 percent shooting performance, allowing them to make just 15 of 49 shots, and sure enough Majerus was smiling after the game. It didn't even matter that the Utes themselves shot a mere 30 percent (14 of 46)."We played defense really hard," said Majerus. "We defended really well . . . That's about as good as we can play on defense."
The victory moved the Utes into fourth place in the Western Athletic Conference with a 9-6 mark (19-8 overall) with one game left in the regular season. Next up: the grand finale, BYU vs. Utah in the Huntsman Center next Saturday.
The Utes can only hope they rediscover their shooting form in the meantime. As Majerus noted Saturday, "We couldn't have missed better shots. We got wide open shots, fast break shots. How many layups did we miss?"
Byron Wilson managed 16 points, making all of 4 of 11 shots, one of them a no-look, falling-to-the-floor flip over the shoulder. Paul Afeaki, with his shooting thumb heavily wrapped, scored 13 points, on 4-of-8 shooting. Phil Dixon's slump continues - 2 of 10.
But Majerus seemed not to care one whit. "We played defense," he said. "We shoot 30 percent and win. We outrebound them 43-30."
It was Majerus' kind of game - low scoring, bodies slamming to the floor (45 fouls), relentless man-to-man defense, crashing the boards, hard picks. No wonder the Rainbows were sucking air from an oxygen tank during timeouts.
None of which escaped notice by the coaches.
"It really was a physical game on both ends, and both teams had a tough time getting into the flow of the game," said Hawaii coach Riley Wallace."
"It was a hard-fought game," said Majerus. "I don't know if the fans appreciated how physical and tough it was. It's the best we've played since the BYU game."
What with all the bodies flying around, it was bound to happen. Wilson got his bell rung while taking a charge. M'Kay McGrath left the game with a severely sprained ankle and is considered questionable for the season finale.
The Utes entered the game tied for fifth place with Hawaii (now 15-11) and determined to move up a notch in standings and improve their position for a post-season berth (Majerus thinks they must win the WAC post-season tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament).
"We talked yesterday after practice and we decided we wanted to please Coach with our defense because we didn't play good defense against San Diego State (Thursday)," said team captain Craig Rydalch.
The defense started with a tag-team effort on Phil Lott, who leads the WAC in scoring with a 20-point average. Lott managed nine points, making just 3 of 12 shots while being covered alternately by Wilson, Dixon, Rydalch, McGrath and Barry Howard. Chris Walz managed 16 pints for Hawaii, but it was hardly enough.
The Rainbows never led, although they managed to tie the score at 31 midway through the second half. But Antoine Davison, who played his best game as a Ute (7 points and solid D), made a foul shot, and Wilson slapped away a Rainbow pass to trigger a fast break that ended with Jimmy Soto passing to Afeaki for a three-point play. That began a game-deciding 15-5 run in which Dixon and Wilson hit treys and Afeaki scored on a spinning fingeroll in the lane.
"It was the kind of game we wanted," said Rydalch. "We wanted to play defense. We weren't concerned with our shots."
For the Utes, it was their fourth consecutive victory over the Rainbows.
"The players knew they probably (will) have to play Utah again in the WAC tournament," said Wallace. "We know if we keep working on this offense, we can finally get a win over them."