With Michael Doleac, a 26-point scorer two nights earlier, fouling out with with 12 minutes still left in the game, the Utah basketball team appeared to be in a bit of trouble Saturday night against an up-tempo, pressing TCU squad.
Thankfully for the Utes, they had freshman Hanno Mottola come riding to the rescue off the bench.Mottola, playing his best overall game as a Ute, scored 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds and hit a pair of pressure-packed free throws in the final minutes to help lead Utah to an 81-77 victory over the Horned Frogs before a sellout crowd of 7,166 at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.
The win keeps the Utes unbeaten in Western Athletic Conference play at 4-0 and 12-2 overall, while the Frogs, 40-point winners over BYU Thursday night, fell to 1-4 in WAC play and 12-6 overall.
Keith Van Horn had another fine outing, scoring 23 points and pulling down 13 rebounds and Ben Caton (11 points) and Andre Miller played well on the guardline. But it was the freshman from Finland, who got the post-game praise.
"Hanno came up big, especially with Doleac out," said Ute coach Rick Majerus. "He played good from the start, posted strong, shot well and made some big free throws."
"Our depth was a big factor tonight," said Caton. "Hanno stepped in and played great for (Doleac). He hit some big free throws."
Mottola's coach from Finland, Henrik Dettmann, who has been following Mottola the past two weeks, said it was the best game he's seen from his prize pupil. And Mottola, who scored 19 in a blowout win over Cal-Irvine, was pleased with his performance.
"I needed to step up with Michael out," said Mottola. "I was ready from the first second I stepped on the court and that helped my confidence."
In the first half, Mottola struggled from the foul line, missing three, including two that hit the glass first, but he came back with two key ones when it counted.
The Frogs had erased an 11-point Ute lead and it was 75-73 when Van Horn knocked down a three-pointer from the left corner. Then after Jeff Jacobs scored for TCU, the Utes turned it over. But Jacobs, who had scored 27 off the bench against BYU Thursday, missed a forced three-pointer and with 38 seconds left, Mottola was fouled after getting a pass from Miller inside.
He calmly swished both shots to make it 80-75 and after Mike Jones scored for TCU, Caton iced it for good by making one of two free throws with 16 seconds left.
"It was a very good game, a tough game," said Majerus. "I liked our defense and we executed against the press very well. They're a good club - I'm glad wedon't have to come down here again for three more years."
TCU coach Billy Tubbs said, "I thought we could win the game, but we didn't make the right plays. We had our chances, but I thought we forced some shots at the end. They're a fine basketball team, but that's no reason why we shouldn't win."
Miller came close to a triple-double, scoring nine points, grabbing eight rebounds and handing out eight assists. Actually he wasn't far from a quadruple-double as he also had seven turnovers.
But Miller was the key against the Frogs full-court pressure, which they kept up the entire game. If anyone thought the Utes were going to try to slow it down against the run 'n gun Frogs, they were in for a surprise.
The Utes ran with the Frogs right from the opening tip with five of their first six baskets coming on layups or dunks off the transition game. In fact, 11 of Utah's first-half baskets were layups or dunks compared to two for TCU. What Utah was doing was breaking the TCU full-court press, thanks mainly to Miller who expertly dribbled out of trouble time and time again, giving the Utes the advantage on breaks as they took a 46-42 halftime lead.
TCU took a brief lead early in the second half as Malcolm Johnson, who led all scorers with 28, kept firing in threes. The Utes went ahead for good on a pair of free throws by Van Horn with 14:26 left and gradually extended the lead to 11 at 70-59 when Van Horn went in for a reverse dunk with 9:06 left. But Utah went nearly five minutes without a point until Miller sank a three-pointer at the 4:36 mark.
GAME NOTES: The Utes have a week between games before playing Rice Saturday night at the Huntsman Center . . . The Utes and Frogs meet again in Salt Lake on Feb. 15 . . . TCU made 11 of 31 three-pointers and the 31 attempts tied a team record . . . Doleac played just 12 minutes, as did TCU center Damion Walker, who also fouled out . . . When asked what impressed him about Utah, Tubbs replied with a straight face, "Their rushing attack was very good and their pass blocking was the best I've seen. They led us in first downs and total yardage and that really impressed me" . . . With several teams ranked ahead of Utah losing this week, including Iowa State (twice), Cincinnati and Arizona, the Utes should move up in the rankings this week.