Two weeks and no losses later, and the University of Utah and BYU basketball teams are back on ESPN, trying to settle new scores. Tonight at 6:05 p.m. they'll play for the WAC tournament title while all of Wyoming either yawns or orders the mangy dogs from the Beehive State back down I-80 before sundown.
Having this year's finals in the Arena-Auditorium on the Wyoming campus hasn't turned out to be very fortuitous. Not after a season that's seen:- Utah ransack the Wyoming Cowboys three straight games, including Friday's semifinal in the righteously rabid A-A, when the Utes, now 28-if-you-can-believe-it-2, scored a 69-63 win amid almost 12,000 cowboy hats hoping they wouldn't.
Nothing could stop the incredible Winning Streak Utes, not the loud Cowboy fans, not Wyoming Coach Benny Dees' temper tantrums, not even Garth Brooks singing "I've Got Friends in Low Places" on the P.A. system.
- BYU lose to the Cowboys twice during the regular season, and still, somehow, manage to place second in the regular season standings - to Utah - and now, to make it to the postseason tournament final tonight.
Even in the best of times, the Cougars are as popular in Wyoming as neckties. They aren't beloved anywhere in the WAC, but in Wyoming the proportions of dislike are by far the most pronounced. Where else can you buy T-shirts that say, "My Favorite Teams Are Wyoming . . . And Whoever Else Beats BYU."
"We'll be the road team tomorrow night," said BYU Coach Roger Reid.
The fact that meeting Utah would mean facing the team that had just beaten Wyoming wouldn't matter, he said.
"Saddam Hussein could be playing us tomorrow night, and they'd cheer for him," said Reid.
Louie Krutsch, the director of the ticket office at Wyoming who used to work in the BYU ticket office, said he wasn't sure if Wyoming's fans would go that far. "But if BYU played the Republican Guard," he said, "I know they'd root for them."
Whatever the case, BYU and Utah will definitely meet tonight on the High Plains, and rarely will a BYU-Utah game be played at such a high level, or under less dire circumstances.
This will not be a do-or-die game, even if it is almost mid-March. Both teams are going on to the NCAA tournament, as sure as the wind blows in Rock Springs.
Utah's win ensured BYU of an NCAA berth. In the storied history of the arch-rivalry be sure and add this one to the list. Not that the Utes did it on purpose. It was a byproduct of their winning.
It worked out like this: The 8th-ranked Utes were already a lock for the NCAAs, no matter what happened here. BYU, on the other hand, needed an airtight case that it was indeed the league's second best team, and could command the WAC's customary second invitation.
No matter what happens in tonight's title game, there can be no argument Utah and BYU are the league's top two teams.
"Weird, huh?" said Reid as he settled in his seat to watch the Utah-Wyoming game. "If Utah wins, no matter what happens I'd say we're in the NCAAs. It will be the first nice thing they've done for us this year."
Tonight could be the second nice thing. But a Ute team that beat the Cougars twice, including in Provo, easily qualifies as the prohibitive favorite.
Utah has played four games this year in the Double-A, with three of the games against Wyoming, and the Utes are 4-0. They have their own friends in low places.
Last night, they had a lot less incentive to win, since the hometown Cowboys, with a 19-10 record coming into the game, needed the victory to drastically improve their NCAA tournament chances.
But if there's ever been an example that winning is a habit, it's these Utes, who three and a half months after the season's innocuous start continue to resemble a mix between a Chinese fire drill and a Rocky workout. They've got as many heroes as the 102nd Airborne.
As for BYU, its luck does seem to have gone on the upswing since losing the one-point overtime game to Utah on ESPN two weeks ago to end the regular season. After Scott Moon's hook shot bounced on and off the rim seven times as the buzzer ended Friday's game with Hawaii, the final bonk was as pure of a BYU bounce as there's ever been. The ball went down, so did Hawaii, and the Cougars started chanting . . . "Go Utah."
What it all means is the resumption of an old rivarly in a new setting. Utah vs. BYU, one state removed. Business as usual, with one exception. Plenty of good seats will be available at tipoff.