YOU COULD HAVE chalked it up to the emotions of your basic closely contested instate rivalry game. Or you could have considered it a heat-of-the-moment exchange between coaches. Whatever the case, Saturday's Utah-Weber game turned nasty with 6:50 left in the contest when Weber's Jeff Lentfer raised his elbow and Utah's Terry Preston went down like he'd been hit by a runaway forklift and Utah coach Rick Majerus quickly offered to work things out with Weber coach Ron Abegglen in the A-sticker parking lot.
Other than that, it was a peaceful night.By game's end, however, the issue of elbows and injuries had played itself out, and the Utes had turned what was mostly a close game into a runaway, taking a 71-54 win.
"A nice start," said Abegglen. "We had a real nice start."
If it appeared for much of the game that Weber wasn't intimidated by the bigger Utes, well, it's because it wasn't. The Wildcats haven't ever been all that worried about any mystique surrounding the Utes.
This is a series that isn't long, despite the proximity between the schools. It's young enough that most of the players were alive for most of the games played between them. Though their first contest was in 1930 - a 41-31 Utah win - the teams had met only 22 times going into Saturday's contest. By comparison, BYU and Utah have met 214 times, USU and Utah 207.
Compared to the other instate rivalries, this thing is still an experiement.
Despite playing in a bigger conference and to larger crowds, the Utes have enjoyed only modest success against the Wildcats, winning 12 and losing 10 before Saturday night. Weber came into the game with a two-game winning streak over the Utes. Not that the Utes have ever enjoyed losing to Weber. After viewing films of last year's loss to the Wildcats, Utah forward Keith Van Horn announced he "almost threw up."
And that was before he saw the first half of Saturday's game.
"At halftime tonight, I had the same feeling," said Van Horn. "I didn't want to lose to these guys again. "
The possibility of that happening, of course, was very real through better than a half. Weber led from the opening tip, and built its lead to 10 points as the half neared its close.
Which was nothing short of maddening for Majerus. So far this year, he has to be wondering what direction his team will take. Though big and talented, the young Utes have yet to establish whether they plan to live up to expectations to challenge for the WAC title this year. In the exhibition season they lost to a team of ex-college players calling themselves High Five America, leaving the Utes to wonder if they'd been beat by a basketball team or a sports drink.
Soon to follow, though, was the much publicized win over Indiana in the Maui Invitational.
By last weekend, the Utes, now 4-2, were starting to feel good about themselves, having dispatched Southern Cal on the road.
Once the game began Saturday night, though, the Utes' rising confidence appeared to have taken a day off. It wasn't as though they didn't remember last year's loss to Weber. They just didn't remember it clearly enough. They shot the ball like Mr. Magoo in a fog.
Majerus blamed himself for Utah's sluggish start. "I worked them too hard and too long in practice this week," insisted Majerus.
After resting during halftime, the Utes charged back. Van Horn dropped in two 3-pointers and Preston and Drew Hansen one apiece. Utah used its defense to go from seven down at half to 16 points ahead. After making only five field goals the first half, they made 14 of 26 the second.
Given the final 17-point margin of victory, the game would have ended up a snoozer, had it not been for elbows and angry words. Preston was caught in the throat by Lentfer's elbow and eventually departed for a hospital, never to return.
"I thought it was an elbow thrown at his face," said Majerus. "That's why I was upset. He nailed him right in the throat with his elbow."
Majerus and Abegglen had angry words for several minutes. Nevertheless, both of the over-40 coaches - that's over 40 years old and over 40-inches in the waistline - decided against settling the matter outside.
Abegglen pointed out that the officials called it a simple foul, not a flagrant one. "I guarantee my guys would not take a swing and make a flagrant foul," he said.
Majerus took the Fifth, saying he'd have to look at the films.
As the game moved on and the outcome became obvious, the intensity died down. Preston was on his way to the hospital and the Wildcats were on their way back to Ogden, their two-game winning streak over the Utes finished.
And after two years of losing to Weber, the Utes finally had a game they could watch on film without getting sick.