SAN DIEGO — Even nightmare regular seasons can have dream endings. Just ask Coach Smokey Gaines of San Diego State.
He suffered through SDSU's worst basketball season in 1986-87. He resigned because of it.
It all came down to Saturday night. In Gaines' final regular-season game with SDSU, the Aztecs wrote a happy ending to a season of distress.
They beat Utah, 75-62, in front of a crowd of 1,607 that gave Gaines a standing ovation when he was presented a plaque beforehand.
Saturday will be remembered as the night SDSU's players gave Gaines a going-away present. But Gaines would prefer that it be remembered as a night the Aztecs won one for Gaines' wife, Joanne.
Joanne Gaines had surgery Friday and will be in the hospital three more days. The Aztecs said a prayer for her before the game, then went out and won.
Smokey Gaines said he will always remember the night for two reasons: the standing ovation and the emotion shown by his players in winning a game for his wife.
"It's a good feeling," Gaines said. "People here showed their appreciation. That helps a lot."
Winning also could help the Aztecs in the short run.
Because Brigham Young beat Hawaii, 100-80, Saturday night, SDSU will play host to Hawaii Tuesday night to determine the final representative to the Western Athletic Conference Tournament.
SDSU players did not want another trip to Hawaii.
"It's a long and boring trip," forward Rodney Hawkins said. "Plus, we miss two days of class."
Hawkins was upset with SDSU's administration. Although President Thomas Day and Athletic Director Fred Miller were in attendance, Gaines was presented his plaque by John Wadas, an assistant athletic director.
"That sendoff was not too formal," Hawkins said. "The head man could have come downstairs. Somebody."
So it was left to the players to give Gaines his regular-season sendoff.
Hawkins scored a season-high 21 points, and Josh Lowery scored 15. Gerald Murray had 13 points and a game-high 15 rebounds.
"I wanted to finish my career here playing for Smokey," said Murray, a fourth-year junior from Detroit. "Tonight, I just wanted to show how much I appreciated him for bringing me out and giving me a chance to play."
From the outset, it appeared SDSU (4-24, 2-12) would play its best game of the season. The Aztecs led by 10 points twice in the first half and 11 points twice in the second half.
Utah (9-7, 17-11) didn't exactly figure to make it easy. The Utes were hoping for a victory to boost their chances of playing in the NCAA tournament or National Invitation Tournament.
Instead, the Aztecs may have knocked Utah out of tournament consideration. SDSU trailed only once, 46-45, on a Mitch Smith basket with 11:41 remaining.
Utah later tied the game, 54-54, with 7:38 remaining. SDSU then scored nine straight points on two field goals by Murray and a field goal and three-point shot by Juan Espinoza.
"We'll be better next year with the players we have coming back," Gaines said. " They'll be better next year with the players coming back. Whoever is the coach will reap the benefits."
Said Darryl Gaines, a sophomore swingman: "I was trying to play for my mother. Plus, it might have been my father's last game here. If we didn't win, at least we played hard. Winning made everything better."