Lobos? determination, arena to challenge Utes

By By Joseph Simmons

By Joseph Simmons

Playing in The Pit is one of the biggest challenges that every Mountain West Conference team has to deal with each year, but when the Runnin’ Utes face New Mexico there tonight, the circumstances will be tougher than usual.

When conference play began last week, the Lobos looked like one of the best teams not just in the conference, but also in the country. No. 15 nationally with an impressive 14-1 nonconference record, everyone figured that New Mexico’s momentum would carry right on into league play. However, the Lobos have had a disastrous 0-2 start against MWC opponents, losing first at San Diego State 74-64, then dropping their last game at home 74-62 against UNLV. Now, Utah will have to try to kick an angry New Mexico team when it’s down, and head coach Jim Boylen knows that’s no small order.

“They’re going to have their fangs out, no doubt about it,” Boylen said. “I told my team that they’re going to have their grit and will be ready to play. Not that they wouldn’t anyway, but they don’t want to be 0-3 in the league. It sets up as a great game for us and for them. They need a win, and we need a win.”

The Utes head to Albuquerque, N.M., riding a three-game winning streak, which includes a 65-45 drubbing of the TCU Horned Frogs in their conference opener last Saturday. The win put Utah over .500 for the season at 8-7, but more importantly it gave the team a much-needed strong start to league play.

In their three recent victories, the Utes relied on solid, consistent defense, a trend that Boylen said must continue for his team to be successful this season.

“This is a big week for us,” Boylen said. “Just to recap Saturday’s game, it has to be all about defense, defense and more defense in this program.”

Although early on the team was plagued with inconsistency, things are beginning to change for the Utes, who now rank fourth in the MWC and No. 53 in the NCAA in field goal defense, holding their opponents to just 39.6 percent from the field. Additionally, Utah ranks No. 26 in the NCAA in blocked shots, averaging 6.6 per game, with sophomore center David Foster individually ranked fifth nationally with 4.3 per game.

The Ute defense will need to be solid to stop an extremely balanced offensive attack from the Lobos. Junior swing man Darington Hobson leads New Mexico in scoring with 16.4 points per game, but he is just one of four starters averaging double-digit scoring per game. Forward Roman Martinez averages more than 15 points per game, and the Lobos’ two starting guards, Dairese Gary and Phillip McDonald, both average just fewer than 11 points per game.

For much of Utah’s roster, The Pit will be a new experience, and veteran leaders Carlon Brown and Luka Drca will be the Utes’ only players with legitimate experience on the hostile court.

“It’s a tough place to play8212;it gets really, really loud,” Drca said.

The Utes are 78-46 against the Lobos, but they haven’t won in Albuquerque since Jan. 21, 2002. Notwithstanding, Boylen said playing in The Pit for their conference road-opener is a fantastic opportunity for his young players.

“We have to take our momentum into this trip and just continue to get better,” Boylen said. “This is going to be a great experience for my team. There are nine guys on our team who have not experienced a road game in our league. To me, this is a great experience for them.”

Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. tonight. The game will be televised on the Mtn. and broadcast on KALL 700 AM.

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Richard Payson

Carlon Brown and the Runnin? Utes will put their three-game winning streak on the line tonight when they face New Mexico in The Pit.