After two close losses to Utah this season, BYU changed its game plan.
The strategy: Make the Utes play defense.The weapon: A defense-numbing ball-control game.
For much of the season, whenever they were ahead late in a game, the Cougars took time off the clock before shooting. The idea, of course, is that a team can't catch up if it can't shoot, so minutes become more valuable than points.
This time, BYU Coach Roger Reid said he decided to try that tactic as soon as his team got a lead.
"Most teams come down and take three or four passes and then shoot, so you don't have to play much defense," Reid said. "We thought that by making them play great defense it would affect their shooting, which it did."
"We just tried to control the tempo and get good percentage shots," said guard Nathan Call.
With 10:36 left to play in the first half, BYU took its first lead, 11-10, on a free throw by Steve Schreiner.
After a Utah miss, BYU went into its time-is-precious routine. On each possession, Call and his teammates passed the ball around - and sometimes just stood and held it - for 30 seconds before they made a serious move to score. Frequently, the only option left by then was a pass into Shawn Bradley, which explains why the 7-foot-6 center had 21 field-goal attempts - half the BYU total.
That tactic worked well enough to get BYU a slowly built nine-point lead midway through the second half, but then theCougars were forced to change the plan slightly.
"They (the Utes) can do so many things with their team," Reid said, admiringly. "They have a shooting team, a quickness team, a big team."
Utah Coach Rick Majerus had tried all those combinations during the game in search of one that would be effective against the BYU slowdown, and he finally resorted to a small lineup against BYU's big guys - Bradley, Schreiner, and 6-10 Gary Trost.
The result was that the BYU lead was cut to two over a three-minute span.
"At one point we had Shawn (Bradley) covering (6-foot Utah guard Tyrone) Tate," said BYU guard Scott Moon. "There were some bad mismatches."
"We got caught there for a minute," Reid said.
So the Y. coach countered with a small lineup of his own, substituting guard Mark Heslop for Schreiner.
"That was for defensive reasons, because they were playing four small guys in there," said Call.
"We had to try to keep them off-balance," Reid explained.
It worked well enough that BYU was able to reverse Utah's momentum. The Cougs pushed the lead back to seven before the final minutes, when both teams played use-the-clock.
At any rate, while the BYU strategy may have kept them in the game, it didn't win it for them. The outcome may have been more attributable to motivation than tactics.
Eighth-ranked Utah was already a sure thing to make the NCAA Tournament field, and after Utah beat Wyoming Friday night it was widely assumed that BYU would be invited too.
The Cougars, however, made no such assumptions.
"We pretty much felt we still had to make the tournament," Moon said. "There are so many teams on the bubble this year."
"We just wanted to make sure," said Call. "You never know what's going to happen."
Now, they know.