PROVO — A long time ago, before LaVell and Mac and Urban and Bronco and Whit came along with their big-shot football, the BYU-Utah rivalry was like it was Wednesday night.
Basketball was where things really got sweaty.
Does it seem hot in here to you?
Utah and BYU resumed their 105-year hoops feud Wednesday at the Marriott Center, and it seemed as though the pressure really had been building since 1909. The place was packed to the rain gutters.
A century of buildup and a capacity crowd can do those things.
That’s so Mountain West.
The local universities can pick up the football rivalry when they play again in 2016, but for now it’s not a bad idea to pretend it never existed. The Utes squandered a 13-point first-half lead Wednesday, but got 27 points from their bench in a 65-61 win. The all-time series now stands at 129-127 for BYU.
It ended just as it should have in matters of the heart. With 2:31 remaining and Utah up by four, Delon Wright called a timeout just as Anson Winder tried to swipe away the ball. Wright responded with an elbow-shove. The crowd booed like it was taxation day.
A few seconds later, as the teams scrambled for the ball and a whistle blew, BYU coach Dave Rose howled about the shot clock expiring. But it was ruled the ball had changed possessions. The booing rained down even heavier.
Utah made just enough free throws down the stretch to hang on.
Another rivalry game was history.
“I haven’t experienced it a whole lot — this my fourth year,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, when asked if the rivalry is waxing or waning. “But it’s a strong rivalry, no doubt about it. I don’t know how you could say it’s getting any stronger, necessarily. From my mind it’s pretty much maxed out It’s an unbelievable basketball state games like this, there’s some magnitude. It makes for a pretty special night. So for me it’s pretty much maxed out.”
In other words, how could it get much better?
This year was promoted as one of the more intriguing matchups in a long time. That’s partly because over the last couple of decades, the outcome has seldom been in doubt. First were the Rick Majerus years, which fell heavily (pardon the pun) toward the Utes. At one point Utah won 11 straight. Then came recent years, in which the Cougars owned a big advantage, including one 12-3 run. Until Utah’s win last year, the Cougars had won seven straight.
But this year the Utes came in ranked No. 13 nationally, fresh off a win over No. 8 Wichita State. BYU’s only losses were to San Diego State and Purdue, in overtime. The Cougars came in as the nation’s highest-scoring team. The Utes led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense.
So the game pitted a team that never met a shot it disliked, versus a team that didn’t like people shooting.
Long before tipoff, it was clear this wasn’t an average December night. The Cougars showed up in powder blue throwback uniforms. Not all the way back, just to when Danny Ainge, Fred Roberts and Greg Kite played.
That was far enough to get the crowd going.
The lights went down for introductions and a galaxy of blue glow sticks lit up the arena. The Utes might have been overwhelmed in blue were it not for Krystkowiak, whose jarring crimson blazer disrupted the whole motif.
The audience was on him like frostbite, chanting “Off the court!” whenever Krystkowiak ventured away from the bench. During free throws, the student section waved cutout faces of stars from Miley Cyrus, to Johnny Depp, to Chris Berman, to Sonny Bono. There was no particular reason for it, except to be a distraction. And it worked fairly well. The Utes missed three of six free throws in the final minute.
Part of a sluggish BYU start may have been due to the early exit of starter Nate Austin, who limped off just 19 seconds into the game with a pulled hamstring. The Cougar big man never returned. It got worse for BYU a few minutes into the second half when Utah climbed ahead by six. By that time the Utes had used 10 players and all had scored. For the game, Utah’s bench outscored BYU’s by 11. Meanwhile, Utah dominated the glass, 43-31. Yet with a half-minute to go, the Cougars were down by just three.
But in the end, a deeper bench, howling defense and hard rebounding decided the day. The Utes held BYU to 34 points below its average.
As for the rivalry, the teams kept that right where it has always been.
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