Baby steps

By and

It’s still going to be an uphill climb. There’s no doubt about that. But just a few days ago, the questions surrounding the U basketball team concerned whether or not the Utes would be forced to play in next week’s tournament play-in game.

But any such talk-which was already quieted to a whisper following the Utes’ double-overtime win over New Mexico-died Tuesday night. The team’s second straight impressive effort came in the form of a 74-68 win over the scorching hot San Diego State Aztecs. And while it may not be enough to strike fear into the hearts of the conference’s heavyweights, the last few days for the Runnin’ Utes have at least made things more interesting for the struggling club.

“Well, we’re finding ways to win games, and that’s the biggest thing,” U head coach Ray Giacoletti said.

With six wins in MWC play, the Utes sit neck-and-neck with two other teams, Wyoming (6-8) and Colorado State (6-9). Depending on how things turn out today and Saturday-the last two days of conference play-the Utes could be seeded anywhere from No. 5 to No. 7. That could make all the difference in the world.

At No. 7, the Utes would likely have to take on UNLV at the Rebels’ home floor at the Thomas and Mack Center. If they manage to sneak in two seeds higher, they’ll face San Diego State. And as they proved Tuesday, the Utes have the ability to win that match-up.

Even with leading scorer Luke Nevill hobbled by a hip pointer in recent games, the Ute offense has been able to find plenty of ways to score. Saturday, it was Johnnie Bryant and Shaun Green combining for 44 points. And in the last two wins, reserve guard Johns is averaging 23.5 points per game.

Even the team’s trademark sloppy play seems to have been dialed down over the last two games. Saturday against the Lobos, the Utes turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, but only five the rest of the way-which included two overtime periods. Most importantly, the Utes were able to hang on against a team that, at the time, was threatening to push the Utes back into the No. 8 slot-and the dreaded play-in game.

“We had to get that win (New Mexico),” Nevill said. “That gave us the motivation to get this win as well.”

Tuesday featured more of the same. After a messy opening, the Utes settled down, took care of the basketball and never allowed the Aztecs to get too close down the stretch.

“It gives us confidence,” Johns said. “We know this league is very competitive, and anybody can win on any given night. That’s the league we play in.”

To be fair, all season long the Utes’ M.O. has been the same: They shoot the lights out, but porous defense allows opponents to do the exact same. And Utah’s half-court style of play doesn’t exactly lend itself well to shootouts. True to form, the Aztecs shot 59 percent from the floor in the second half last night. But the Utes were just as good, and got just enough key stops in the waning minutes to pick up their second win in a row.

Naysayers might point out that the Utes have always been competitive in the friendly confines of the Huntsman Center-and they may have a point. After all, the Utes have had two other two-game home win streaks this season, and both times they continued to falter once they hit the road. But with a win over a 20-win opponent like the Aztecs, the Utes are at least feeling a little more confident going into the make-or-break MWC Tournament.

“I think we’ve kind of turned the corner,” Nevill said. “It’s a bit late to say that, but we’ve shown a little promise going into the tournament.”

Lennie Mahler

Stephen Weigh and other teammates congratulate Ricky Johns after sinking a three-point shot and drawing a foul. Johns made 6-of-7 attempts from beyond the arc.