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Utes turn semiannual yawner vs. Air Force into tough one

As the final seconds of Saturday night's Utah-Air Force game ticked away, the five Ute starters, Michael Doleac, Hanno Mottola, Alex Jensen, Drew Hansen and Andre Miller were still on the floor.

Wait a minute.Wasn't this supposed to be the game that Ute walk-ons Doug Gooch, Zach Dalton and Brandon Sluga were supposed to be finishing up along with seldom-used Greg Barratt and Nate Althoff? After all, this was the Utes' favorite patsy, Air Force, which was playing without its second-leading scorer and leading rebounder and coming off a dreadful 19-point loss to BYU two nights earlier.

However, the No. 6 team in the country had all that it could handle from the pesky Falcons, as usual, and the Utes were more than happy to escape with a 55-41 victory before 13,913 uneasy fans at the Huntsman Center.

"I'm very pleased. What did we win by, 11?" said Utah coach Rick Majerus. "I thought we played hard. I liked our defense tonight."

The Utes, who rank among the top 10 in the nation in both field-goal percentage defense and scoring defense, will probably move up in both categories, as they held the Falcons to just 32.5 percent from the field in addition to the 41 points, a season-low for a Ute opponent.

It's the offense that has to be a concern to Ute coaches, and it certainly is to the fans, who got frustrated by the Utes' slow approach, which often resulted in shots being fired up just as the shot clock hit zero.

Some fans yelled for the Utes to push the ball more, but when asked why the Utes don't ever push the tempo against Air Force, Majerus replied that you don't argue with success.

"What are we, 15-1, 14-1 against them since I've been here? I like the odds of 14-1. You can do no better than win," he said.

Only Miller, who sank 7 of 8 from the field for a game-high 20 points, shone on offense as the rest of the team managed just 11 of 33 from the field.

"I came out early to practice tonight to try and get some confidence," said Miller. "It was tough tonight playing against a matchup zone and trying to get some offense."

Early on it looked like the Utes would run away and hide as they recovered from a 5-0 deficit to hold Air Force to 1-for-15 shooting over the next 15 minutes and run out to a 28-11 lead. Then just before the half, the Falcons suddenly ran off nine straight points with three straight field goals and a pair of free throws and cut the halftime lead to 28-20.

Air Force stayed right with the Utes through most of the second half and even had two chances to cut the lead to three early in the second half.

Miller came up with several key plays down the stretch when the game was still in doubt. His shake and bake move down the middle made it 43-34 and then he hit a 3-pointer to make it 46-36. Then after Jon Carlisle scored on a three-point play inside, Miller stole the ball and drove in the lane, was fouled and made two free throws for a 51-39 lead with 3:26 left.

"Miller's a good player," said AFA coach Reggie Minton. "We have not one that matches up real good with Miller. You've got to make it a one-on-one situation and hope he misses."

Miller also led the team with four assists and two steals and also came up with two blocked shots.

The Utes played good defense on the Falcons' 19-point-per-game scorer Jarmica Reese, who went scoreless until the final 11 seconds of the first half and only finished with 12 points on 4 of 11 shooting. The Utes rotated Jensen, Hansen, Trace Caton and Miller defensively on Reese.

"We executed about as well as we could," said Minton. "They're an excellent team and very well-coached."

Part of the reason the Utes didn't blow the Falcons away in the first half when they led by 17 was that Majerus was experimenting with various combinations. Freshman Britton Johnsen got 10 minutes in the first half, while Jordie McTavish played 14, often at the two-guard spot because David Jackson was sitting out with a sprained ankle.

GAME NOTES: The Utes play three games this week, Monday night's 10 p.m. game with UNLV, at UTEP on Thursday and Saturday's big rematch with New Mexico at home.. . . Air Force center Mike Freeman missed the game to attend the funeral of his grandfather.. . . Utah had a season-high eight blocked shots in the game.. . . In the game at Colorado Springs last month, the Utes had a similarly tough game, winning 57-46.