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Utes get outta town in time to face UTEP

Some people have questioned why the Utah basketball team usually leaves for road trips two days before its game.

Wednesday's giant snowstorm provided a good answer.The Utes got out of town just in time, before the huge storm hit and closed the airport for the first time in more than 20 years. It was a bit of an adventure, but the Utes made it in time to get acclimated to this Texas town on the Mexican border and hold a practice at the Special Events Center.

Most of the players and coach Rick Majerus flew on a private jet owned by Jon Huntsman Tuesday evening. Three players, plus assistant coaches Jeff Judkins and Brock Brunkhurst, along with trainer Gerald Fischer were scheduled on an 8:30 p.m. Delta flight, but it was canceled. So they hopped on a Delta flight at 10:30 p.m., changed planes in Las Vegas and arrived in El Paso at 4 a.m.

However, a contingent from KJZZ including sportscaster Steve Brown, had to drive to Las Vegas Wednesday night and catch a flight to El Paso Thursday morning. Utah media relations director Bruce Woodbury never could find a way down.

Usually the Utes play this game as part of a two-game trip to New Mexico, but this year the games were split up to allow for a Sunday game in Albuquerque earlier this month. The Utes will return home right after the game to prepare for Saturday night's home game with New Mexico that could be for the Mountain Division title.

But the Utes must get a win Thursday night (7 p.m. tipoff) to get the opportunity for a co-championship, and they know it won't be easy.

"I'll tell you what, they played us the best here, the closest game we've had (in Salt Lake)," said Alex Jensen, remembering the 62-56 win over the Miners last month. He also remembers that during his freshman year in 1994-95, the Utes defeated New Mexico in the Pit, but lost at UTEP. "The UTEP crowd is just as loud as New Mexico's."

Even though the Utes struggled to beat UTEP, that doesn't mean the Miners are the best team Utah has faced this year at home. Rather it was more likely a case of the Utes being distracted by the retirement of Keith Van Horn's number that night and looking ahead to the big game with New Mexico three days later.

Still, the Utes are taking the game very seriously.

"It will be a very difficult game - there are no easy games," said Majerus. "I told the guys they better get ready to play because it'll be as tough a game as we play all year."

On the surface, it doesn't appear the Miners will be much of a threat since they've lost five straight and eight of their last nine. But they'll be motivated, because a win could almost assure them of a WAC tournament berth. Right now they are 3-9, just a game ahead of BYU and Air Force in the Mountain Division standings and if they win and the other two lose, they'll wrap up at least sixth place.

The Miners are led by 6-9 forward Sharif Farjardo, who scores 15.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. B.J. Wade is a three-point threat who scores 10.8 per game.

The Utes played short-handed the past two games with David Jackson out and Trace Caton playing sparingly on a bad knee. However, both players should be near full strength said Fischer after they worked out Wednesday.