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Those guys are on a roll

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By now it's obvious this year's Ute basketball team isn't the most talented Rick Majerus has ever coached. It isn't the quickest, biggest, strongest or most intimidating, either.

In fact, it would be hard to imagine anyone on a 12-game win streak being less imposing. Mention the Utes have the nation's longest streak of conference home wins (47) and the first thing that comes to mind is: "THOSE guys?"

That would be them. Not an All-American in the bunch. If you don't count games against opponents such as Troy State and St. Francis, they have only looked dominating once — a 30-point win at New Mexico. But they offset that with an overtime scare at Air Force and close games against both Whitworth and Saint Mary's.

John Wooden's UCLA Bruins, they're not. But as long as they keep winning, they can keep their practice time to a minimum. Meanwhile, they are tied for first place in the Mountain West Conference and picking up speed, following Monday's 71-66 win over BYU.

"I don't mind if we're not ranked," said Ute forward Britton Johnsen. "Yeah, it would be nice, but I think we're finally getting away from (the perception that they're) sneaking up on people."

The Utes aren't everything, but one thing they are: adaptable. You want character parts? They can do character parts. They're the Dustin Hoffmans of college basketball. They can change according to the script. In the early season they were a picture of mediocrity, going 3-3. They appeared headed toward another disappointing season, similar to last year when they failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994. But after the slow start, they steadily improved.

In that span they saw enigmatic senior Chris Burgess playing the best basketball of his career. But just as he got rolling — he was the team's leading scorer and rebounder — he got injured. Their top inside man was gone.

What did they do? They became mad bombers, that's what.

Traditionally, the Utes have been known as an inside-out team. They liked knowing the paint on a personal basis. But when Burgess went down, the inside game went down with him. Not to worry. They morphed into rocket launchers, making a record 17 against UNLV and added 14 against San Diego State. By the time this week rolled around, they were the leading three-point shooting team in the nation.

That, in turn, alerted BYU, which devised a plan: keep Nick Jacobson, the team's best outside scorer, away from the ball. And while they were at it, keep the Utes in general from launching threes.

The plan worked. Jacobson went just 1-for-5 from three-point range and the team made only four of 18.

Once again, the Utes adjusted. Johnsen went inside early on layups to get them off to a decent start. They spread their attempts around, nobody taking more than 13 shots. They hunkered down defensively in key situations, forcing many of BYU's 17 turnovers, and built their lead to 16. They shot effectively from the free throw line.

Even so, as the hour grew late — the game began at 10 p.m. to accommodate TV — the lead dwindled. BYU closed to within three with just over three minutes remaining. But Travis Spivey made an important steal and landed four free throws in the final 2:21 to secure the win.

"Tonight was not one of our spectacular nights, but we relied on some other parts of our game that we haven't been relying on," said Johnsen.

They relied on good team defense, exceptional free throw shooting, unselfish play and blocking out. They relied on their wits and their coach's wits and their momentum. They even relied on their fans. Despite the fact that weather was bad, the game was on TV, parking was iffy, the Jazz were playing and the late tip-off, attendance was a healthy 14,517. Nobody seemed all that upset by the inconveniences. In fact, the crowd was boisterous, appreciative and stoked for the annual rivalry game. Surprising? Not really. The Utes have rolled with the punches. Why expect anything less from their constituency?


E-mail: rock@desnews.com