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Once again, Pit works its magic

It was supposed to be in the bag, an in-the-refrigerator special. A game the Utes couldn't possibly end up losing. A game that was all over except the part where Rick Majerus stops by the press table to order a victory pizza on his way out.

The only problem was, the Utes were playing in the infamous Pit, where reason and logic don't always apply. A place where - just like cosmetic surgery and politics - things aren't always as they seem.So it was, despite having everything going for them except the Curse of the Pit, the Utes ended up losing 77-74 to New Mexico on Sunday. When an Albuquerque TV reporter asked if 62 percent field-goal shooting was encouraging, Majerus could only sigh.

"I never felt good about losing a game in my life," he said. "Maybe something has escaped me. I was never one for moral victories."

Majerus was never one for playing in the Pit, either. To a visiting coach, the place is as dangerous as an abandoned mine shaft. You can go in, but you might not come out. It's a place where the Lobos have now won 38 straight. Last year the Utes went in ranked No. 4 in the nation and ended up a 20-point loser.

Actually, the Utes have had more success than most in the Pit. They won in 1996 by 18, which was the last time anyone won there. In 1995 they embarrassed the Lobos by 36. Before that you'd have to go back to 1991, when the No. 13-ranked Utes won, 68-62. Still, the Utes have won just nine times in 35 tries.

Other teams have done far worse. Air Force, for example, has played in the Pit 18 times and never won. TCU is 0-for-3 there. Colorado State has played in the Pit 29 times and won only three.

It's safe to say this isn't a good place to try to start - or sustain - a winning streak.

For much of Sunday's game, the Utes seemed destined to win. Their perimeter defense was exceptional, their shooting spectacular. They moved as far ahead as 13 points. But as the game expired, so did the Utes. Try as they might, they couldn't shut out the crowd. They turned the ball over. They missed free throws. They bobbled a rebound out of bounds. When the final horn sounded, just ahead of Drew Hansen's baseline jumper, the crowd cascaded onto the court and danced. Literally. You would have thought the Lobos had gotten away with murder.

Which, of course, they did.

Home streak notwithstanding, beating the Utes must have required nothing short of a pact with the devil. The Utes would have to lose a nine-point lead with three minutes to go in the game, lose an eight-point lead with under two minutes left, miss two of three free throws down the stretch, and miss a layup with 14 seconds remaining. They would also have to have Andre Miller, who played a near-flawless game, get knocked nearly senseless in the final minute as the officials stared blankly. Lastly, the Lobos' Royce Olney would have to make two ill-advised, long-distance shots in crunch time, and make it look like it was planned.

All of which happened.

"Just one of those times where you put it up and see what happens," said Olney.

The game began as well as the Utes could have expected. Miller was on his way to a 24-point, five-rebound night. Throughout most of the game, they answered anything the Lobos could offer. When Olney made a 3-pointer with 12:36 to go, cutting Utah's lead to six, Miller answered with a leaning double-clutch basket. When David Gibson sank a pair of free throws to bring the Lobos within five, Michael Doleac sank a three.

But that was before the Pit really got wild. Olney stole the ball with a minute remaining, smacking Miller in the head, then buried a 3-pointer while ignoring teammates alone underneath the hoop. Not exactly the best-percentage play, but it worked. With six seconds to go and the score tied, he tried a shot that was way too early and way too long. Didn't matter. The Pit spell was at high tide.

"I don't know what their coach told them," said Hansen. "(Olney) was kind of feeling it, I guess."

Thus, the Utes' perfect season was derailed after 18 straight wins. One streak ended but another kept going. And when all was said and done, you could only wonder if the Utes had been beaten by the Lobos, the crowd, or their own breakdown. And wonder if Olney knew what he was doing, or if he was just counting on the magic of the house to work things out.