PROVO — Was it BYU's fast start or Jimmer Fredette's personal 12-4 run late in the game that carried the Cougars past the Utah Utes 82-69 Friday night at the Marriott Center?
It's kind of hard to determine which one of BYU's warheads was more lethal to the Utes. But combined both were powerful enough to give the Cougars the big rivalry win and keep them atop the Mountain West Conference standings with a 6-1 mark. Overall, the No. 10/12 Cougars are now 21-2. Utah drops to 10-11 overall, and 3-4 in the MWC.
"They don't count one and a half, and they don't count two, but they're big games," BYU coach Dave Rose said of the rivalry. "Most of our players have lived in the intermountain area for a long time. It's big to our former players who come to practice. You want to play your best, and tonight we played well."
The Cougars were really at their best in the opening half when they raced out to an 18-point lead 13 minutes into the game. And the Utes were at their best for the next 20 minutes when they cut that margin down to four with six minutes remaining.
But no one was as good as Fredette was during a three minute stretch late in the game when he went on a personal 12-4 run to spoil Utah's frantic comeback bid.
"They put a barrage on us in that first half, but we hung in there," Utah coach Jim Boylen said. "We took a few body blows and kept scrapping. We made that run and got the game under control, and I love the way we battle."
Fredette finished with a game-high 36 after going scoreless for the first eight minutes. But once BYU began leaning on the playmaking point guard's penetration and long-distance shooting, the shots Utah was firing at the Cougars began to glance off.
"He really played within himself late in the game when I know he was tired, because they had done a really good job on him. And that's something that is good to know," Rose said. "Because with what he's been through the past month or so (a bout with mononucleosis) he dug pretty deep tonight and found another gear and helped this team win."
From the beginning, however, it was BYU guards Jackson Emery and Tyler Haws who led the Cougars out of the starting gate. The two each scored eight of BYU's first 16 points, and the two also combined for six early steals.
"The reason why we got the lead was because we were aggressive," Fredette said. "We were going to the basket and getting good shots and putting pressure on them."
By halftime, the Utes had cut the lead down to 14. At the break, BYU had a 10-0 advantage in fast-break points, an 11-2 advantage on points off turnovers, and a 20-12 advantage in the paint.
But slowly, and surely, the Utes — as they've done most of the season — clawed back from the huge deficit. With a 15-4 surge midway through the second half, a 51-33 BYU lead was suddenly at 55-48.
"I thought in the second half we kind of tightened up a little bit and didn't play the way we were supposed to and not the way we did in the first half," Emery said.
Freshman Marshall Henderson scored four quick points to begin the run, but the inside power of transfer Jay Watkins was hard for BYU to stop.
"He's a beast. He's a beast," Boylen said. "He plays through contact so well that I think sometimes the officials have a hard time with it."
It looked like BYU was going to regain control of the game when Brandon Davies banked in a layup and Fredette hit a jumper in the paint. But when Henderson hit a 3-pointer and then a short jumper, Utah trailed only 64-60 with 6:51 on the clock.
"I thought we trusted. I thought we spaced," Boylen said. "We shared the ball and Watkins went to work."
That is, until Fredette took over a couple of minutes later. A drive down the middle and a scoop, plus a foul, put BYU back ahead 69-61. After a tough jumper by Luka Drca made it a six-point game again, Fredette hit a 3-pointer up top. Henderson missed a three on the other end, and Fredette came back with another trey from the right wing to make 75-63.
"When things start getting tough, I like to be aggressive," Fredette said.
And aggressive he was. A Watkins jumper cut the lead back to 10, but Fredette came right back with an acrobatic spinner in the lane, and a foul, for another 2-and-1 and a margin too large for Utah to overcome.
"They made a real commitment to make it tough on us to get the ball in the post and then play off the post. So we brought our big guy up, trying to get their big guy up, and try to get Jimmer a little bit of space to be able to figure out where to go, and he was terrific," Rose said.
Boylen was impressed, and said Fredette was the final dagger in the Utes' comeback.
"He made great plays, great shots," Boylen said. "He had the ball in his hands a lot, but had to work for his points. He got them. He made big plays at the end."
Aiding Fredette was Haws, who scored 15. Watkins was Utah's high man with 18, while Henderson (who was ejected for a flagrant foul late) scored 16.
"I think it's probably what most people expected when they come to a Utah game. You have two teams playing really hard and players making plays and competing," Rose said.