SALT LAKE CITY — Following an ugly first-half that featured horrific shooting by both BYU and Utah, the Cougars turned to their senior leaders in the second half.
Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo combined to score 25 of BYU's 36 points in the final 20 minutes and helped lead BYU to a grind-it-out 61-42 victory over the Utes before a crowd of 10,327 at the Huntsman Center Saturday afternoon.
Hartsock scored 14 of his game-high 19 points in the second half while Abouo scored all 11 of his points during that stretch.
"Every team has to have a guy that the players on the team want to have the ball in tough situations," said coach Dave Rose. "I think that's what we've developed here. Our guys want Noah to have the ball. Noah's continued to come through and he hit some big shots in the second half."
Utah guard Josh "Jiggy" Watkins, fresh off his one-game suspension, paced he Utes with 14 points.
"We played hard. We laid it on the line," Watkins said. "It is just one of those games where the outcome doesn't show it. We played really hard. Unfortunately, we didn't make enough shots."
BYU (8-2) overcame a 27-percent shooting performance in the first half as Utah controlled the pace for much of the game. The Utes (1-8), who shot a miserable 18 percent (4-of-22) in the first half, chewed up time off the shot clock on almost every possession, resulting in sloppy, out-of-sync play by both teams.
"That first half, credit them, they played great defense and they limited our post catches. We just adjusted," said Hartsock, who sported a cut and a bruise below his left eye, emblematic of the physical play. "We worked on getting jump shots and open shots, getting into the post, drawing the double-team and then kicking it out. We were able to do that, spread the floor, and we made shots. We were confident in the second half and that helped."
The Cougars missed their first six shots from the floor to open the game and continued to struggle the rest of the half (7-of-26). But BYU rebounded to shoot 52 percent in the second half and 39 percent overall. Utah ended up shooting 27 percent (14-of-52) for the game.
"In the first half, the game was exactly how we expected it to be — really physical," Rose said. "But we were having a hard time scoring, both teams. … They did a great job of controlling the pace in the first half. In the second half we were able to get some shots in transition and get the pace more like we wanted it."
"We knew it was going to be a grind-it-out type of game," Hartsock said. "They did that really well. They sped us up a little bit. We were a little shaky. We're used to going down low to start the game and scoring. We had to adjust it and shoot outside."
BYU point guard Craig Cusick, a former Utah redshirt player, knocked down a 3-pointer with 12 minutes left in the first half, followed by another 3-pointer by Nate Austin that put the Cougars ahead for good.
"Craig came in and was able to bury that thing," Rose said. "It let us breathe a little bit. Then Nate hit another big 3."
In the final three minutes of the first half, Brock Zylstra drained a pair of 3-pointers that gave BYU a 25-17 advantage at intermission.
"Brock and Craig hit some shots to help us get over that slump," Hartsock said.
In the second half, Hartsock and Abouo took control. During a 15-minute stretch, they scored 23 of 25 points for the Cougars. BYU enjoyed a 19-4 run that sealed the win. A 3-pointer by Abouo put the Cougars up, 50-30, with just under six minutes left.
BYU was glad to earn the victory against their arch-rivals, even if the Cougars get a lot of style points. Nor did they get a lot of points in general — finishing 18 points below their season scoring average.
"It was two teams that are really competitive. It's just a great rivalry," Hartsock said. "I knew Utah would come out with a lot of energy, even if their record didn't prove it. They're a tough team, really physical. We had to adjust our game plan from what we wanted to do."
"They slowed us down a lot in the first half and took a lot of time off the clock," Cusick said. "We like to run-and-gun, so they did a good job of using the shot clock to their advantage in the first half."
For Cusick, it was a happy homecoming to the place where he redshirted in 2006-07.
"It was really great to come back and see some people I knew," he said. "I had a good experience here. But it feels nice to be where I'm at now and be able to come up here and get a win."
It marked BYU's third consecutive win over Utah at the Huntsman Center. The Cougars have won 10 of their last 11 games against the Utes overall.
BYU faces No. 6 Baylor next Saturday at the Marriott Center.