Things couldn't have been much better for the Utah basketball team Thursday night.
The Utes hardly broke a sweat in
defeating UTEP 71-49 at the Don Haskins Center, improving to 24-2 on the season. In doing so, the Ute starters got plenty of rest and the reserves plenty of action as every player on the roster scored.Then, just before they hit the showers, they received word that BYU had upset New Mexico up the road in Albuquerque.
The latter news probably elicited the most excitement the Utes showed all night because their game was pretty much a yawner after the first 10 minutes. The significance of New Mexico's loss is that the Utes can now win the Mountain Division outright and grab the No. 1 seed in next week's WAC tournament.
"BYU beat New Mexico?" asked Andre Miller outside the locker room door. When told it was true, he broke out in a wide grin and headed in the locker room to share the news with his teammates.
Both the Utes and Lobos are 11-2 heading into Saturday night's game at the Huntsman Center. If the Lobos had won Thursday, then the Utes would have needed a win to earn a tie for first, which would have been followed by a coin flip immediately after the game for the top seed.
The key to Utah's victory was its defense. The Utes completely shut down the Miners' attack and forced them to shoot outside - where they failed miserably. They only managed 29 percent in the first half and 34 percent for the game against Utah's man-to-man defense.
"I thought we defended very well," said Utah coach Rick Majerus. "We played good team defense and shared the ball well on offense. I'm very happy."
Actually, Majerus wasn't too happy.
"I feel bad for UTEP," he said. "This is a great program and a great coach and this is a game I don't enjoy winning, although I'd feel a lot worse if we lost. We've got more size, more depth . . . we've got more of everything, so we should win."
The 49 points marked the lowest point total in a regular-season home game for a UTEP team since a 45-43 loss to BYU in 1982. The Miners dropped to 12-13 with their sixth straight loss and ninth in their last 10. At 3-10 in the WAC standings, the Miners need to defeat BYU Saturday night to get into the WAC tournament as the No. 6 seed.
Michael Doleac led Utah with 15 points, while Miller was the only other Ute in double figures with 10. Despite playing only 20 minutes, Miller had a game-high seven rebounds, five assists, five steals and 5-of-5 field-goal shooting.
Freshman Britton Johnsen, who continues to play a larger role on the team, played a season-high 18 minutes and scored four points with three rebounds and three assists.
Johnsen put the Utes ahead to stay with a three-point play at the 15:03 mark of the first half. That sent the Utes on a 15-2 run that gave them a 20-7 lead midway through the first half.
They came out from a 31-19 halftime lead and pushed the lead as high as 26 points at 57-31 before Majerus cleared his bench.
"They gave us the perimeter, but we couldn't hit anything," said UTEP coach Don Haskins. "We couldn't stop them down low, but no one has all season."
For Haskins it was another low point in a season that has been tough for several reasons. Earlier this year he was suspended for a game after bumping an official in one game and castigating the officiating after another.
Recently, he ripped into interim athletic director Barbara Burke after she reprimanded him for the officiating tirade. Then after she left for an administrative post at the University of Wyoming, he said, "I am extremely happy she is going to Wyoming and my sympathies go out to the unfortunate souls who find themselves under her supervision."
The Miners' best player on Thursday was freshman center Brandon Wolfram, who scored 13 points on 6- of-10 shooting and grabbed five rebounds. William Smith also scored 13 points off the bench, but the Miners' top two scorers, Sharif Fajardo and B.J. Wade only scored five and seven points, respectively.
GAME NOTES: Most of the Utah team and Majerus returned home directly after the game on Jon Huntsman's private jet . . . The Utes will begin play in the WAC tournament Thursday at either noon or 9 p.m. If they lose to New Mexico they play in the earlier game. If they win, they'll play in the later game . . . Utah's victory was its sixth straight over UTEP and tied the all-time series at 31-31 . . . Not only did every Utah player score, but every one got at least one rebound . . . In September, Haskins was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Earlier this year he won his 700th career game and now has 702 victories.
U. game tonight
This week's snows in Salt Lake City have postponed a basketball game in Houston. The Utah vs. Rice women's game scheduled for Thursday has been postponed until tonight at 6:30 p.m. MST.
The Utes were unable to travel to Texas as scheduled earlier in the week because of the closure of Salt Lake International Airport and were forced to take a Friday-morning flight. The rescheduled game will be broadcast live by KALL radio, AM-910.