It didn't really matter that BYU is still emerging from the rubble after a 1-25 season and Utah is standing on top of the WAC summit and currently ranked No. 3 in the land.
The 22,242 spectators that packed the Marriott Center showed up to watch an old-fashioned red-and-blue, not to mention black-and-blue, backyard brawl, and that's exactly what they got."It was a great college basketball game," said Utah coach Rick Majerus. Indeed, it almost seemed like old times.
In the end, the Utes held off a feisty Cougar squad to claim a 71-61 victory and improve their record to 13-0 and 1-0 in conference play.
BYU coach Steve Cleveland, in his introduction to this heated rivalry, was happy with his players' overall performance.
"Nobody can say Utah competed harder than we did," said the first-year coach. Leading the way was junior-college transfer Ron Selleaze, who scored 26 points in his home debut and instantly won over Cougar fans. Selleaze also tied a Marriott Center record with an 11-for-11 effort from the free-throw line.
Still, BYU dropped its sixth straight to the Big Red Machine.
"We didn't have enough to beat them," said Cleveland.
The Cougars did manage to throw a semi-serious scare into the Utes, particularly at the end of the first half and the end of the second half.
BYU trailed just 23-20 at halftime after falling behind by as many as 13. Later, after Utah scored 18 unanswered points to start the second half, BYU clawed back to within seven with under one minute to play. The Utes escaped Provo with their perfect record unscathed.
"It was a nice win for us tonight," said Majerus. "It wasn't a smart win, but we played with good heart."
In the shooting department, both teams struggled. Utah wound up hitting 40 percent of their field goals and BYU finished at 37 percent. From beyond the 3-point arc, the Utes were 4-of-15, the Cougars 4-of-24.
"They took away our perimeter game," said Cleveland. "To beat a team like Utah, you've got to make eight or nine 3's."
Meanwhile, Utah's physical presence and suffocating defense inside forced the Cougars to look outside for much of the game. BYU couldn't penetrate the paint with a police escort. "They're so big and strong," Cleveland marveled. "We were bouncing off them." Late in the game, Selleaze took over, keeping the game close with a repertoire of slashing moves to the hoop.
On the other side, senior center Michael Doleac scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds. But the unsung hero of the game for the Utes was guard Trace Caton, who totaled 10 points.
"For a freshman from Alamosa, Colo., with a modicum of ability, that kid has a big-time motor," said Majerus. "He played defense, had poise and composure, he hit free throws."
Speaking of free throws, Utah probably could have made this contest a lot more lopsided, but the Utes missed 11 charity tosses out of 37 attempts. "Seventy percent is disgusting," he said of his team's free-throw shooting.
Majerus left the Marriott Center with a favorable impression of the Cougars. "I thought BYU played very well and very hard," he said. "Selleaze is tremendously athletic . . . I think they'll win a lot of games down here. I'm glad we don't have to make another trip down here."
Trailing 21-8 with four minutes left in the first half, the Cougars went on a 12-2 run, sparked by a pair of steals by guard Brian Hamilton that led to quick, transition buckets. BYU went into the locker room with momentum and believing they had a chance against Utah.
The Cougars were jolted back to reality quickly in the second half, but never gave up. "This team will never fold," said Cleveland, whose Cougars fell to 5-10 overall and 0-1 in the WAC. "There is no quit in these guys."
BYU and Utah return to action on Thursday as BYU hosts Wyoming and Colorado State visits the Huntsman Center.