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UTES ALREADY OWN 1 `VICTORY' OVER THE RAMS

Even before Rhode Island and Utah have met on a basketball court, the Utes already have claimed one victory over the Rams: The home-court advantage. On Friday night they'll meet in the third round of the National Invitation Tournament in the Huntsman Center, with the winner advancing to the NIT's Final Four.

The home game didn't come without a fight and some 11th-hour dealing. According to school officials, the Utes were told before Tuesday's second round that if they defeated Arizona State, and Rhode Island defeated Boston College, the winners would meet in Salt Lake City. The Rams say they were told same thing."We were expecting to play at home if we won," says URI coach Al Skinner.

Shortly after Utah's win over Arizona State - which followed URI's win over Boston College - an NIT official told Ute athletic director Chris Hill that the Utes not only would play their third-round game against URI on the road, but that they would do so on Thursday night. Hill said no way.

"It would have put us at a competitive disadvantage," said Hill. "We would have had to get on an airplane (Wednesday) and then play the next day."

Hill had two different phone discussions with NIT officials in New York, trying to find an alternative. Hill wanted the game to be played a day later, but the Rams weren't certain their arena was available that night. Hill said the Huntsman Center, which has been rented all week for a Novell Convention, could be ready in time to play a late game Friday.

In the end, the Utes prevailed probably because their arena seats 14,000. The Rams' arena seats 4,500.

"I'm not sure what would have happened if they (NIT officials) had said too bad," said Hill, referring to his stance against a Thursday game.

For their part, the Rams think they deserved a home game. Both of their previous NIT games were on the road, in Nashville and Boston. The Rams believe it was their turn for a home game.

Skinner went to bed Tuesday believing a home game was set, but he was awakened at 3 a.m. with news that his team would be traveling to Salt Lake City. After making hasty travel arrangements, the Rams arrived in Utah Wednesday night at 9 o'clock.

"What's really the unfair part is that the kids are missing so much time in school," says Skinner. "Obviously, that was not given much consideration."

Because of the travel schedule, Skinner hadn't even had time to study his opponent before today. "I don't know much about Utah," he said Wednesday night. "I know the way Rick (Majerus) coaches. He's a good defensive coach. I know more of what Rick is about than his team."

Utah and URI have had similar success this season. The Utes are 22-10 and finished fourth in the Western Athletic Conference with a 9-7 record. The Rams are 22-9 and finished fourth in the Atlantic 10 Conference with a 9-7 record.

The winner of Friday's game, which will begin at 8:30, will advance to the NIT's Final Four in New York City early next week.

Florida and Notre Dame have already made the semifinals, the winner of New Mexico-Virginia will decide last spot.

The Rams are completing their best performance since the 1987-88 season, when they were 28-7 and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Skinner became head coach the following year and has produced records of 13-15, 15-13, 11-17 and 22-9 (so far).

"We surprised a lot of people this year," says Skinner. "The preseason magazines had us finishing eighth (in the Atlantic 10)."

Jeff Kent, a 6-foot-10 center, leads the Rams in scoring (14.6 per game) and rebounding (8.6). Andre Samuel, a 6-4 forward, and Mike Brown, a 6-7 forward, average nearly 23 points per game between them.

"Now that we're here, it's not so bad," said Skinner shortly after arriving in Salt Lake City Wednesday.

A victory Friday would make the visit all the better of course. Then again, it would necessitate another road trip . . ..