SALT LAKE CITY- Since opening in 1969 the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City has been a friendly place for mid-majors. The building has hosted 81 NCAA tournament games including the 1979 Final Four that saw Larry Bird's Indiana State team duel Magic Johnson and Michigan State for the national title. In the 1990's the home team Utes were the premier mid-major team in the country. Utah represented the WAC in the 1998 NCAA Tournament and made it all the way to the title game before falling to Kentucky.
Somewhere between 1998, with Rick Majerus and Andre Miller in San Antonio for the Final Four, and 2005, with Urban Meyer and Alex Smith in the Fiesta Bowl, Utah became a football school. The football team has steadily risen, while the hoops program has had moments of brilliance during an otherwise downward trend for the last decade. Meanwhile, thanks to the strong football program, the school has become upwardly mobile. The Utes traded in the WAC for the Mountain West in 1999 and moved up to the PAC-12 this season leaving the red line far behind in its rear view.
This year though, the Huntsman Center is back to being a place mid-majors can love. The Utes are a strong candidate to be Team Red Line Upset (Team RLU) for 2011-2012. Every season there is a power conference team or two that struggles as it switches coaches or rebuilds the roster(or in the case of Utah both). During the overhaul the guarantee games that normally pad the schedule for the home team become a costly beatdown from the visitors. The power conference school ends up paying guarantee money for the privilege of getting beat by a school most of its alumni have never heard of. Utah looks primed to fit the bill of Team RLU this year. So far this season the Utes already suffered a Stendhall exhibition loss to Adams State in the preseason and narrowly snuck by San Diego Christian College by 3 points to avoid a regular season Stendhall as well.
So entered a Montana State team that was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Sky and supposed to be an easy win for the home team.
In the classic red line upset formula the plucky little school has to play the perfect game to overcome the Goliath. The Bobcats did not adhere to that mold. They shot the ball poorly from deep (4-14) and were a ghastly 48% from the charity stripe (12-25). Normally, those flaws would derail an hope of an upset on the road at a PAC-12 school, but the Bobcats led Utah for most of the contest. To the uninitiated you would swear that Montana State was the power conference school asserting their will. During a Bobcat run late in the game a despondent young Utah fan looked over at his father and said "Dad, we aren't protecting this house."
When the game came down to the final minutes it was the visiting Bobcats, not the home team, that was cool and collected on the floor. Montana State's Christian Moon calmly hit a superhoop as the shot clock expired to give the Bobcats a 5 point lead with under a minute left and teammate Jamie Stewart corralled a rebound on the other end to seal a 70-64 victory for Montana State.
Utah will one day rise again, every power conference school does. Someday the Huntsman Center will once again become a feared place for opponents to visit. It will have 15,000 screaming fans watching a national title contender, instead of the roughly 3,000 that were in attendance to see Montana State walk all over the home team. Until that day comes however it will have to settle for being home to Team RLU, a power conference team that only a mid-major could love.
MONTANA STATE 70, at UTAH 64 11/19/2011
MONTANA STATE 2-1 (0-0) -- T. Johnson 7-12 1-1 15; R. Singleton 5-8 5-8 18; S. Reid 2-6 2-3 6; M. Fall 6-6 0-0 12; C. Moon 2-5 0-1 5; J. Stewart 2-5 3-4 7; J. Allou 3-6 0-1 6; X. Johnson-Blount 0-2 1-7 1; M. Dison 0-1 0-0 0; J. Budinich 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-52 12-25 70. UTAH 1-2 (0-0) -- J. Washburn 4-6 2-4 10; C. Martin 4-9 0-1 11; J. Watkins 8-15 4-4 22; D. Farr 2-3 0-0 4; C. Hines 4-10 0-0 10; A. Odunsi 2-5 1-3 5; K. Storey 0-1 0-0 0; B. Wilkinson 1-3 0-0 2; G. Matthews 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 25-55 7-12 64.
Three-point goals: MTST 4-14 (J. Budinich 0-1; S. Reid 0-2; R. Singleton 3-4; J. Stewart 0-1; X. Johnson-Blount 0-1; C. Moon 1-4; M. Dison 0-1), UTAH 7-17 (C. Hines 2-6; J. Watkins 2-3; C. Martin 3-4; G. Matthews 0-1; A. Odunsi 0-3); Rebounds: MTST 30 (T. Johnson 6), UTAH 30 (J. Washburn 9); Assists: MTST 14 (T. Johnson 4), UTAH 14 (J. Watkins 4); Total Fouls -- MTST 17, UTAH 20; Fouled Out: MTST-None; UTAH-J. Watkins.