Under pressure: No. 15 Runnin’ Utes try to stay focused on CSU as the victories pile up

As the wins keep mounting for the No. 15 Utes (20-3, 8-0 MWC), so does the pressure from the fans and media to keep the winning streak going. But with 15 straight victories and increasing scrutiny from the March Madness prognosticators, the Runnin’ Utes are just trying to stay focused.

“As the wins go on, we feel that we are very unstoppable,” Ute junior Richard Chaney said. “But at the same time, we feel pressure because we have a lot to lose.”

A lot to lose is a good way to break down the upcoming weekend. The Utes host Mountain West Conference cellar dweller Colorado State (9-12, 1-7) on Saturday, a game the Utes should win easily.

Sometimes it’s the easiest-looking game that is the biggest challenge. Two years ago, CSU, sporting many of the same players, came into the Huntsman Center and handed the Utes a 66-65 loss on a last-second shot by current starter Micheal Morris.

The stakes of Saturday’s game are not lost on Ute point guard Marc Jackson, who was on the court during the 2003 loss.

“There’s always a fluke that happens, and there’s always letdowns that happen in everybody’s game,” Jackson said. “We don’t want them to come in here and beat us again in this arena.”

The Utes have already beaten CSU on the road, posting a 75-52 win in Fort Collins on Jan. 17. While the final score was indicative of a rout, the Rams led for most of the first half before the Utes finally pulled away in the second.

“[CSU] came out playing well and they had great enthusiasm,” Chaney said. “But we’re at home now, so it’s going to be a lot different.”

With things going so well, U coach Ray Giacoletti downplayed the notion of the Utes’ getting swelled egos.

“Nothing has really changed for us,” Giacoletti said. “The goals that we set at the start of the season are still basically the same.”

Those goals probably didn’t include a 15-game winning streak and a probable top-four seed in the NCAA tournament, but Giacoletti’s players share the coach’s views on keeping a level head.

“If we lose, we take it in stride and learn from that game,” forward Bryant Markson said. “It’s not too much pressure. Right now we are on a 15-game winning streak and that’s what we are focusing on.”

The school record is 23 wins in a row, set during the 1998-1999 season. That year the team started its streak two calendar days later than this year’s squad, and kept the victories going until losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Wally Szczerbiak and No. 10 seed Miami of Ohio.

When asked about the team’s chances of matching the 23 straight wins, Jackson points to the Utes’ 57-53 win over UNLV on Monday.

“Monday was a great eye opener,” Jackson said. “We need to stay focused and we need to execute. We can’t lose that or we are going to hurt ourselves.”

The Utes and Rams tip off at the Huntsman Center Saturday at 7 p.m. The game will be televised live on KJZZ-TV.

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