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BENOIT HELPS MAILMAN CARRY THE JAZZ

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As Karl Malone finally left the Jazz-Timberwolves game Wednesday, 31 points farther along on the road to 20,000, a Minnesota fan shouted, "Nice game, Karl. Thanks, man." Then he paused and added, quieter, "Monster."

Malone certainly qualified as a monster in the Jazz's 103-95 victory over Minnesota. He personally outscored the T-Wolves 8-0 to start the fourth quarter and totaled 13 of his team's first 19 points of the period despite sitting out for two minutes.But the entire Jazz starting team earned monster status in this game, accounting for 90 of Utah's points. John Stockton had 17 points and 14 assists. Jeff Hornacek hit eight of 11 shots for 18 points. Felton Spencer, who has had problems playing against his old teammates in the past, contributed 13 points and 10 boards. And David Benoit . . .

Wait a minute, did you say David Benoit?

Yes, David Benoit. The same David Benoit who has struggled offensively of late, who has been left alone and lonely on the perimeter, dared by opponents to shoot the outside shot. Benoit hit four of five shots in the third quarter, including seven points in an 11-0 run that probably finished the pesky T-Wolves.

And one of those shots was a three-pointer, from a guy who had made one of his last 16 threes.

"I just closed my eyes and prayed, then said, `Thank you, Lord, for this one'," Benoit said.

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said that Benoit missed his first shot of the game, a wide-open jumper, and seemed to sag a little offensively. After the intermission, he got his act together.

"He gave us a big lift in the second half," Sloan said. "He was a lot more aggressive."

As a team, it was the Jazz's getting aggressive defensively in that decisive third-quarter run that really turned this game around. Sure, they made their shots on the other end and that's important, but it wouldn't have made a bit of difference if Minnesota had matched them shot for shot.

"We seemed to get our hands on the basketball a little more," Sloan said.

After leading 63-59 with 4:44 left in the third, the T-Wolves went more than three minutes without a field goal. By that time they had fallen behind by seven, and the Jazz increased their lead to 20 before letting Minnesota whittle it down at the end.

That Minnesota was able to stay in the game until the third quarter was a tribute to its ability to control the tempo. Feeling they couldn't run with the Jazz, the Wolvesslowed the pace, putting the ball up only as the shot clock wound down. The Jazz would have preferred it otherwise, but the tactic didn't bother anyone.

"I never felt we were in a position where we had to pick it up or lose the game," John Stockton said.

The only real negative for the Jazz was the play of the bench. Against the T-Wolves, the Jazz reserves hit two of 13 shots, getting outscored by the Minnesota subs 20-13 despite playing more minutes. In the first half they were 0-for-7, though the team shot 50 percent because the starters were 18-for-29. Sloan said he needs more from his backup group.

"Those guys have to step up and give us some minutes," the coach said. "I can't play those guys (the starters) 48 minutes a night."

That's especially true on a six-game trip like this, where a lot of 40-minute nights for Malone, Stockton, Hornacek, etc., could mean tired legs down the road.

What the Jazz hope to prove on this trip is that they are an improved road team. Last season they were decent (20-21); this season they want to be more than decent, and they seem to be on their way to that with five road wins in a row, one shy of tying the franchise record.

"We've lingered just under .500, which a lot of people would take, but if you want to get to the next level, you have to do better," Stockton said.

What the Jazz must do now is win for the first time this season on the second night of back-to-back games. They are 0-3 in previous efforts, and in each of them they had problems playing down the stretch. The T-Wolves can empathize; they are 0-7 in such situations now, after playing an overtime game in Atlanta on Tuesday.

Thursday's opponent is the Washington Bullets, who may be rested but have had other problems lately, still trying to adjust to the trade that brought Chris Webber to town.

That's little reassurance to Sloan, however. "We always seem to help teams when they're struggling," he said.

GAME NOTES: Jay Humphries and John Crotty split duty as Stockton's backup pretty much down the middle . . . Minnesota's Stacey King did not dress because of a sprained ankle . . . All four of Spencer's field goals were dunks . . . This was Minnesota's 14th straight loss at home.