Second-half heroes: Utes outlast Rams in opening round of MWC

DENVER-It’s one game down, two more to go for the No. 15 Runnin’ Utes (26-4). Utah opened the Mountain West Conference Tournament Thursday afternoon with a 62-49 win over Colorado State (11-17), moving on to the semifinals Friday evening.

Led by 21 points and 17 rebounds from Andrew Bogut, the Utes managed to overcome yet another sluggish first half, downing the No. 8-seed Rams.

In Bogut’s three games against CSU this season, the Aussie has 79 points and 51 rebounds. The gaudy statistics were not lost on Ram coach Dale Layer.

“He’s the best player who’s ever played in this league,” Layer said. “He’s a man among boys. We’ve probably thrown four or five different looks at him in the three games, and I think we rattled him twice.”

Trailing 29-28 at the break, the Utes managed to go on a run to start the second half, outscoring the Rams 8-3 to begin the period. The Utes scored all eight points on layups, as CSU could not stop the Ute penetration.

“We got a group of guys we know we can pull together any time to make a run,” Ute forward Bryant Markson said, following a 12-point outing. “We felt pretty comfortable [with the close half time score]. We have been in these positions before.”

Even with the Utes jumping out to a quick second half lead, the Rams would not go quietly. Four straight points by MWC Freshman of the Year Jason Smith put the Rams to within one, but that was as close as they could get.

Utah answered with another big run, and this one was the knockout punch. The 15-2 run, spurred by aggressive Ute play and a CSU squad that had gone ice cold, put away the game, adding the final punctuation to a disappointing season for the Rams.

Marc Jackson picked up where he left off the last time he was in the postseason, scoring 10 points in the second half for a game total of 14. He added five assists, most on easy layups down low.

“I think we are one of the best in-shape teams,” Jackson said, trying to explain the Utes’ penchant for big second halves. “Our conditioning helps us in the second half.”

At the start of the game, it didn’t look like anyone but Bogut would get the ball in the hole. Bogut scored Utah’s first 11 points, holding an 11-6 lead over the Rams by himself, with only four-and-a half minutes gone by.

But when the Rams started to shoot the ball better, Bogut disappeared, not scoring another point for the rest of the half.

It was the last game for CSU senior Matt Nelson, a second team All-Conference selection. The 2001 MWC tournament MVP exited to a standing ovation from the Ram faithful in attendance, having led the Rams with 14 points.

“You’ve got to keep battling through,” a somber Nelson said after the game. “Unfortunately, this year didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, but I wouldn’t trade the guys I played with all year.”

The Utes now move on to face the No. 4-seed UNLV Rebels at 7 p.m. Friday. The Rebels edged Wyoming 70-63 in first-round action. UNLV guard Ricky Morgan scored all 22 of his points in the second half, going 18-for-19 from the free-throw line.

The Utes swept the season series with UNLV, winning easily in the Huntsman Center, but barely escaping Las Vegas with a four-point win.

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