To look at the Utah basketball team and its coach a little while after Thursday night's game with SMU, you'd never have known they had pulled off perhaps the most improbable victory in Ute basketball history.
Coach Rick Majerus and his troops were wearing glum faces and speaking in monotone voices, even though the scoreboard showed they were 59-58 winners over the Mustangs in the quarterfinals of the Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament.Minutes earlier they had been hugging and jumping all over each other in the middle of the Thomas and Mack Center floor after Keith Van Horn's tip shot at the buzzer lifted the Utes to an amazing come-from-way-behind victory. The unlikely game-winner came off an inbounds play that began with 0.3 seconds left. Andre Miller lofted a pass that Van Horn reached way back to get and then flicked into the basket from five feet away as the final horn sounded.
Then a half-hour lecture by Majerus in the locker room brought the Utes back to reality. As the No. 3-ranked team in the country, they knew they should never have been in such a precarious position of having to overcome a 14-point lead with 10 minutes left, of having to hold their opponent scoreless for the final 8:16 of the ball game and needing a miracle in 3 tenths of a second.
"We forgot who we were tonight," said Majerus. "We were very ordinary in our effort."
"We almost feel like it was a loss," said senior guard Ben Caton. "We just really got lucky."
Lucky indeed. The Utes looked dead and buried when Van Horn's off-balance shot with two seconds left missed and was knocked out of bounds with 0.3 left on the clock.
Under NCAA rules, 0.3 is the cutoff point where it is deemed impossible to make a basket without just tipping it in off an inbounds pass. At 0.4, a player is allowed to catch the ball before shooting it. Well aware of this, the Utes set up a play for Van Horn to start on the low block, try to spin off his man and look to tip in a pass from Miller. Big men Michael Doleac and Hanno Mottola were in the game as possible options, according to Majerus, but Miller said otherwise.
"That was the only option," said Miller of passing to Van Horn.
Van Horn fought through a couple of defenders as Miller tossed his pass.
"I thought I overthrew it, but he has long arms," said Miller.
"I overran the ball a little bit and had to stretch out, but luckily it went in," said Van Horn, who scored 25 points.
The Mustangs (16-12) who had fought so hard for one of the biggest upsets of the college season, could only sit on the floor in shock as the Utes danced around them.
"We knew they were going to throw it at the basket and we just had to keep it out of their hands," said SMU's Jay Poerner. "Unfortunately, it was a perfect pass and a perfect catch."
"It was a tough way to lose, but all-American players, make all-American plays," said SMU coach Mike Dement.
With the victory the Utes (24-3) move on to play 12th-ranked New Mexico tonight in the WAC semfinals at 10 p.m. MST (ESPN-TV). The Utes split with the Lobos this year, losing by 16 in Albuquerque, but winning last Saturday in Salt Lake 78-58.
After falling behind by six (32-26) at halftime, the Utes watched as the Mustangs pushed the lead to 15 points at 54-39 with 12:29 remaining. And "watched" is the right word as Majerus felt his squad wasn't coming close to playing its usual strong defense.
"We figured they were going to lay down and die," he said. "The last seven minutes was the way we've played all year. The first 33 is how you play when you're a.500 team."
During the final seven minutes, the Utes turned up their defensive pressure a few notches and didn't allow the Mustangs to score a single point. Their last basket came with 8:16 left when Poerner, who had a tremendous game with 21 points, got free for a slam dunk to make it 58-48.
The Utes forced SMU into several poor shots taken with the shot clock running down, but they had a hard time scoring themselves, missing six three-pointers, most of the wide-open variety,the rest of the game. Caton scored a couple of baskets and Michael Doleac scored inside and it was 58-54 with 2:45 left.
Van Horn tipped in a Miller miss with 1:01 left, and after another SMU miss, Miller was fouled with 16 seconds left. He made the first and missed the second, leaving the Utes down by one. The Utes fouled freshman Allen Krist and he missed a foul shot. Van Horn put up a wild shot in the lane with three seconds left and after a scramble under the basket, the Utes were awarded the ball, setting up the incredible finish.
UTE NOTES: Nearly 1,000 Ute fans were scattered around the arena Thursday night. After using up their allotment of 375 tickets, Ute fans had to scramble and buy seats from schools that didn't sell their full allotment of seats . . . Mustang guard Jemeil Rich scored 15 points for SMU, including 13 the first five minutes of the seocnd half . . . Majerus appeared to be resting his main players in the opening half, perhaps for the possibility of three games in three nights. But later the coach said he wasn't overconfident, rather he put Jordie McTavish in for Miller and Ashante Johnson for David Jackson because he wasn't happy with some things Miller and Jackson were doing.