PROVO Haven't the BYU Cougars been here before? A long time ago, that is. Not just another close BYU-Utah game. That happened, too, on Wednesday night.
Rather, haven't they been here?
Not merely a place, time, or situation, so much as a feeling.
Full house. Fine team. Crowd in a lather. Championship around the corner.
As far as the Cougars are concerned, this much seems clear: It's good to be back.
Wednesday at the Marriott Center, before a near-sellout (19,460), the Cougars held off Utah, 67-59, behind Jonathan Tavernari's 20 points. That pushed their home win streak to 45 games, their overall winning run to nine games and their record to 21-5, 10-1 in conference.
When it comes to playing at home, it's nice to be comfortable, but even better to be loved.
The Cougs are are feeling as comfortable and loved as the Cosby kids.
"This is the funnest place to play," said forward Lee Cummard. "When I first came here, I saw how big it is and was hoping it would be full, and I'm glad that's how it was tonight."
It appears now the only thing standing between the Cougars and an NCAA Tournament bid, for the second straight year, could be themselves. They have defeated every team in the conference at least once, and now they've handled their biggest rival twice.
To put Wednesday's big, loud crowd into perspective, consider this: Not long ago it was only half as large. In fact, before Wednesday's game, average attendance was still under 13,000. Now, for two straight games, BYU has drawn around 20,000.
When Danny Ainge, Devin Durrant and Fred Roberts played at BYU, sellouts were routine. The big, brick Marriott Center was the place to be on winter nights. But along the way, three things happened: cable TV, a few average years and Rick Majerus.
Cable aired so many games that it dissuaded many fans from going out on cold winter nights.
Another problem was Majerus. The former Ute coach dominated the conference, winning 10 titles in a 14-year stretch. At one point, the Utes beat BYU 12 straight times. That wasn't a spike or trend, it was a mandate. Even in the Marriott Center, BYU's all-time record is still just 21-17 against Utah. One enduring and painful memory of many Cougar fans is that of Majerus walking up the tunnel after yet another win over BYU, pumping his arm and shouting, "I'm still king of the hill!"
Having won four straight over Utah, at least for the time being, the Cougars pretty much own the hill now.
Not that they were ever bad. Other than the 1-25 year, in which Roger Reid was fired midstream, the Cougars have nearly always been competitive. Just not the best. Now, BYU is headed for its second straight regular season championship. The home win streak is second longest in the nation. The Marriott Center has gone from cavern to coliseum. You want crowd noise? It has noise. Ringing-in-the-ears, go-to-bed-with-a-headache noise.
Most surprising, though, is the way the Cougars have done it. After losing players like Austin Ainge and Keena Young from last year, it seemed they would need more time to rebuild. You don't replace your best player and your team leader just like that.
Except they did.
Just like that.
Hence, BYU is on a major roll. It got confidence early with a win over Louisville and a close loss to North Carolina. It lost a game it felt it should have won against Michigan State. By the time the Cougars met their peer group, they were next to perfect. There was that one inexplicable 29-point loss at UNLV, but they made that up by routing the Rebels by 26 last week in Provo.Wednesday, a determined Utah team made the Cougars sweat. With two minutes to go, it was still a three-point game. But on a night when cloudy weather blocked a lunar eclipse in many parts of Utah, the Cougars did what almost everyone at the Marriott Center had hoped: They came shining through anyway.