Another chance for the title

By Marco Villano, Staff Writer

The Runnin’ Utes missed their chance of winning the Mountain West Conference title outright with a loss to BYU Saturday. With only a one-game lead on the Cougars and New Mexico (19-10, 10-4), all Utah (20-8, 11-3) has to do is pick up a win in its final two games to at least take a share of first place.

But it won’t come easy.

The Utes will travel down to The Pit in Alburquerque, N.M., tonight to take on a team that wants to redeem itself from a one-point loss on Jan. 31. With a win, the Lobos will be tied with Utah atop the conference.

“They’re playing well, we’re playing well, it’s two really good teams fighting for a league championship,” said New Mexico head coach Steve Alford. “It’s got the makings to be one of those great Pit games to remember.”

With the season coming to an end, Utah still controls its own destiny as far as crossing off a big to-do in Jim Boylen’s young head-coaching career.

“We would have loved to get that win (against BYU),” said forward Shaun Green. “But we still have two more games8212;we just need one win. We’re going to refocus and get ready for our game down at The Pit.”

Winning the conference outright isn’t a concern to Boylen. The Utes have made huge strides into rebuilding what once was a dominant program. In just two years Boylen turned a team around that was 11-19 overall into a 20 win team.

“I want to build a program,” Boylen said. “But everybody is calling up about building a championship8212;yeah I want to win a championship and we’re going to try to do that. But I’m trying to build a program, build it back to what it should be and we’re making the steps to do that.”

This week will be huge for what Boylen is trying to do. New Mexico will pose a tough test for the Runnin’ Utes.

As the Utes have been saying all season, they will take it one game at a time and thoughts about where they want to go won’t be complete without two big wins.

New Mexico is one of the best home teams in the country this season with a 14-2 record in Albuquerque. In their past three games in The Pit, the Lobos have held their opponents to 44 percent shooting from the field and have shot 51 percent from the field themselves.

“Their shooting and their defense at home is as good as anyone in the country,” Boylen said.

New Mexico benefits from its home court advantage, in which the team averages 14,000 fans per game.

“They’re a little bit nastier at The Pit,” Boylen said. “They’re a little more on top of you.”

It’s not a good place for the Utes to have a must-win game. In conference play this season, which is arguably the best it’s been in 10 years, Utah is 4-3. Although two of the past three road games were amid an eight-game win streak, the Utes shot 43 percent from the field. Their defense has been exceptional though, holding their opponents to 42 percent shooting from the field.

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Lennie Mahler

Coach Jim Boylen is pleased with his team?s overall success this year despite the Utes? recent loss at BYU. The team can claim a share of the conference championship with a win at New Mexico.