LAS VEGAS — It was like watching two UDOT road graders in a drag race.
At the finish line, Utah won by a blade, 42-38, in the lowest scoring game in Mountain West Conference history. Folks, game's on even if one was with a yawn.
With that Ute win, firmed up by Nick Jacobson's game-tying three-pointer with a couple of minutes to play, the league kicked off its post-season tournament with No. 1 seed Utes and No. 2 Cougars advancing to tonight's semifinals in the Thomas & Mack.
On a day the Pac-10's No. 1 Arizona lost to No. 10 seed UCLA, the Air Force looked dialed in to repeat that feat here. The Falcons led most of the game but wilted in the end, just like the other two slugfests with the Utes. Only 10 points separate AFA and Utah, the MWC top and bottom, in three meetings.
There are two key things you gotta have in these post-season hoop dances.
One is a big man. The other is a solid player at point guard.
Utah and BYU had the big guys on Thursday.
Tim Frost, the best scoring big man in the league, clanked around field goals against pesky Air Force, but with the game on the line, he canned 8 of 10 free throws, to seal the victory for the Utes.
Utah's win came on life-after-Britton-Johnsen Tuesday, the day the senior became a medical casualty. "We started using (illegitimate) lineups, players with others that we hadn't done all season," Utah coach Rick Majerus said.
Utah came out cold, fell behind, but it wasn't as much effort as it appeared to be bad bounces and a dose of poor foul shooting. Johnsen's absence? Hard to say how it impacted this contest. In a game where Utah's big men should have made an offensive difference, Frost and Cameron Koford combined for 2 of 8 from the field. Thus, Frost's charity work proved key. Frost got to the line as much as the entire AFA squad.
Steve Cleveland saw Rafael Araujo find his mojo.
Thursday against New Mexico, Araujo got his seventh career double-double. It came after mid-season inconsistency, some misplaced emotion, frustration, foul trouble, and a lack of post touches.
Here, as expected against the undersized Lobos, the big Brazilian dominated with a game high 19 points and 13 rebounds in 32 minutes, but more than that, he kept his head during the 71-56 win.
As a Cougar, Araujo has progressed with baby steps, learning to play Division I ball.
"He'd get down on himself," explained point guard Kevin Woodberry. "He'd get angry and let it take him out of his game. He'd commit a foul, turn the ball over, make a mistake and the let it get to him."
"Hey, I get focused and I know what to do to have a big game and we played hard to get a big win," Araujo said.
MYSTERY VOTES: After surveying seven of the 24 media members who voted for the all-MWC team, it's even more confusing as to how Utah did not get one guy on the MWC first team and CSU Brian Greene found himself off the first, second and third team honor roll. Wyoming placed two players, Dante Richardson and center Uche Nsonwu-Amadi on the first team.
The only reporter I found, outside Wyoming, who voted for Richardson on the first team was Las Vegas Review Journal sports writer Steve Carp.
"He just lit up UNLV both times I saw him play and I put him on my first team," Carp said. Most voters did have Tim Frost on their first team ballots.
Was this a "slip in the seniors" deal when things were tabulated?
"Hey," said one veteran league scribe, "Al Gore got more votes and he's not the president. Go figure."
Perhaps the MWC has a chad problem.