LAS VEGAS -- That poison Rick Majerus keeps locked in his pantry, hidden away from all his opponents, seems to have leaked out and almost made a giant mess on Friday.
Utah has used its lethal mixture -- a combination of tough, physical play, dominant rebounding and stingy defense -- to gag unaware opponents all year.It has been the secret to Utah's record-setting WAC season and climb in the national rankings.
The potent potion, when used carefully, can be more deadly than strychnine, as the Utes have proved with their 26-4 record. Utah has done a good job keeping the deadly substance to itself all season long -- until Friday night, that is.
It seems Tulsa has stolen the formula.
Tulsa made Utah choke down its own medicine in the semifinals of the WAC tournament Friday, leaving the Utes trying to get the aftertaste out of their throats.
Unfortunately for the Golden Hurricane, it tapped out the pilfered poison before the Utes could be finished off for good. Utah's 64-61 overtime victory was easily the toughest WAC game it has played all year, and the stats back the statement up.
Utah was outrebounded for just the second time all season, 39-32, and the first time against a team from the WAC. The last time Utah was outrebounded was against Rhode Island back in December in a game Utah lost.
The Utes, obviously bothered by Tulsa's in-your-face defense, shot a sickly 39.2 percent from the floor, 28 percent in the first half. And whenever Utah went in the paint, the players tip-toed like they were walking through a field full of land mines.
"I would credit Tulsa for our 39-percent shooting," said Majerus. "We had a real difficult game with them. I'm just glad it's over."
Majerus wasn't the only one eager to get off the floor and away from the Hurricane.
"I'd say that in at least the last few months they're easily the most physical team we have played," said Alex Jensen who led the Utes with 20 points, the biggest of which came on a dunk with 50 seconds left in overtime to put Utah up four. "(Rebounding) is one of those things we take a lot of pride in. We're fortunate to win after not winning the rebounding battle."
Michael Ruffin, Tulsa's mangler in the middle, did everything he could to send a message to the Utes that his team would not be intimidated. In the early moments of the game, Ruffin and the other Tulsa players made a concerted effort to bump and bother the Utes.
"They came out real physical and bothered us at the start," said Andre Miller, who struggled as much as anyone as he shot 3 for 13 and finished with 13 points. "They have a tough defense and we didn't execute the way we should have."
On the bright side for Utah, the players feel that at the least they can use the game as motivation for the rest of their tournament-filled season.
"This game will be good for us. It will take us back to the basics and the fundamentals that have been our strengths all season," said Jensen. "This game showed a lot of our flaws."
"I would love nothing more than to take these guys into the film room and show them everything Tulsa did to us," said Majerus. "But you can't do that in a tournament. That's what makes playing these so tough."
Majerus and his players have less than 24 hours to correct the problems.
The championship is tonight at 8 p.m.