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Mountain West Notebook

January 19, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments



Mountain West Notebook

by Bob Thurman

Time for the Main Course

The eight teams of the Mountain West Conference have feasted on a number of appetizers in preparation for the main course: conference play. Some tasted really good (wins against Oklahoma State, Purdue, Dayton and Auburn), while others left a bad taste in their mouths (losses to Denver, Portland and Northern Arizona). Overall, the conference proved to be one of the most balanced in the country, with every team having a winning record going into this week’s conference action.

Each team played a pair of games this week: one on Monday, followed by another Saturday. This will be the norm for most of conference play, with a couple non-conference tilts sprinkled in here and there. With such balance in this league, I feared that all teams would be tied for first place after this week. In fact, the opposite almost happened. Three teams (Utah, Air Force and San Diego State) swept their opponents to start off conference play atop the standings. Meanwhile, three others (UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico) were winless and need to regroup quickly in order to have a shot at the league title.

Monday’s Results

The marquee matchup of the night was the Utes traveling to Las Vegas to face the Rebels in a tussle between two of the top teams in the league. Utah did a good job in the first half controlling tempo and forcing UNLV into a half court game, as they took a four point lead into the locker room. The Utes extended the lead early in the second half to 10 points on a three pointer by Tim Frost. The Rebs fought back to tie the game late, before Utah sealed the 72-67 victory by converting 7 of 8 free throws down the stretch. Nick Jacobson led Rick Majerus’ club with 27 points, while Tim Frost chipped in with 14. Odartey Blankson and Jerel Blassingame had 17 points apiece in a losing effort.

BYU, the league favorite, had to travel to Cox Arena to face a San Diego State team that had been inconsistent all season long. Unfortunately for the Cougars, the “good” Aztec team showed up and pulled off the upset, 65-61. The game was close until San Diego State went on a 11-0 run halfway through the second half. BYU came back to take the lead with under two minutes remaining. However, SDSU’s star freshman, Brandon Heath, took over down the stretch. First, he hit a big three pointer to regain the lead, then stole the ball on the next two Cougar possessions to preserve the victory. Kudos also go out to the Aztecs defense, who held BYU’s star center Rafael Araujo to only 12 points.

Air Force entered conference play as one of the hottest teams in the league. However, they had to start things off on the road, where they had lost 27 conference games in a row. The Falcons traveled to Fort Collins to face a hurting Colorado State team. Without two key starters (Matt Nelson and Michael Morris), the Rams struggled to score points against the vaunted Air Force defense as they trailed 30-20 at halftime. CSU cut the lead down to four in the second half, but wilted under the tough defensive pressure in a 65-57 home defeat. Five Falcons finished the game in double figures, with Tim Keller leading the way with 15 points.

Lastly, a new and improved New Mexico team hit the road to face an always tough at home Wyoming squad. The Cowboys got a good look at new Lobo Danny Granger, who schooled one of the league’s top defenders, Mory Correa, numerous times on his way to a 30 point, 14 rebound game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep up with the hot shooting of Wyoming guard David Adams, who connected on 6 of 7 three pointers on his way to a team-high 24 points. His backcourt mate, Jay Straight, hit 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to ice the 82-77 victory. It was the Lobos 20th consecutive conference road loss, which is now tops in the league.

Saturday’s Results

Hot off its road win at Colorado State, Air Force hit the road again to face New Mexico in an arena that they have never won: the Pit in Albuquerque. As always, the Falcon defense was stingy in the first half, holding the Lobos to only 23 points. They have yet to allow an opponent to score more than 25 points in the first half. However, it was the Academy’s three point shooting that had UNM players and fans shaking their heads. Air Force connected on 12 of 20 three point shots, including four straight by center Nick Welch that blew the game open in the second half. The Falcons embarrassed the the Lobos, 68-42. With two road wins under its belt, Air Force made a statement to the rest of the league that it is a serious contender for the conference crown.

Meanwhile, San Diego State was fortunate enough to stay in the friendly confines of Cox Arena, as it hosted UNLV. The game was close the entire way, with both teams able to get up and down the court and convert many high-percentage shots. However, the Rebels committed 10 more turnovers than the Aztecs, which in turn, cost them the game, 83-78. Once again, Aerick Sanders led SDSU with 23 points and 10 rebounds, while Brandon Heath chipped in with 21 points and 5 assists. Workaholic Odartey Blankson led the way for the Rebels with 18 points and 10 rebounds. By beating two of the league’s top teams, SDSU proved that it’s capable of making a title run this season, as well.

Back in Salt Lake City, the Utes hosted a Wyoming team that had yet to win a road game this season. That wouldn’t change, as Utah’s defense clamped down on the Cowboys in a 60-49 win. Early on, the Pokes played well, leading most of the first half before Andrew Bogut’s jumper tied it at 26 apiece going into the locker room. In the second half, each team exchanged runs and things were tight going into the final two minutes. However, freshman Justin Hawkins hit a big three pointer to put the Runnin’ Utes up by six points. As in the opener, Utah sewed up the win at the free throw stripe, converting all eight shots in the final minute. Andrew Bogut led the way with 20 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocked shots, as the Utes won their eighth straight.

After a tough road loss, BYU was happy to be home to host a hurting Colorado State team. The game was close early on, but then freshman sharpshooter Mike Rose entered the game and subsequently hit 3 three pointers to break open the game. The Cougars were able to play most of their bench in the 82-53 rout of the Rams. Center Matt Nelson was able to play, but was ineffective in his four minutes of action.

This Week’s MWC Heat-Miser Award

Danny Granger, New Mexico

30 points, 14 rebounds, 2 steals versus Wyoming

The 6’8″ junior almost single-handledly carried his team to a big road win, but without much help, it fell just short. With amazing quickness and leaping ability, Granger will cause many problems for the conference’s big men this season.

This Week’s MWC Snow-Miser Award

Jon Rakiecki, Colorado State

2 points, 0-10 shooting, 2 turnovers versus BYU

Not that it mattered, but CSU’s designated 3-point “specialist” couldn’t hit the ocean if he was standing on the beach this day.

     

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