A rivalry game had devolved into something else at the Marriott Center on Saturday night for the Utah Utes. Actually, that devolution started seasons ago, with BYU having beaten Utah in 10 of the last 11 basketball games, including six consecutive victories for the Cougars. The average margin in those BYU wins/Utah losses was 17 points.
A year ago, the Utes got wrecked on their home floor by BYU by 19.
So, this time around, Utah wasn’t so much grinding against a rival as it was measuring how much ground it’d made up.
The answer: A whole lot.
This game proved that in too many ways to describe here. The Utes played rugged defense, they took a 12-point first-half lead, they limited BYU to four fast-break points, they beat the bejeebers out of Tyler Haws, and they almost won.
After the last shot was taken by Utah’s Justin Seymour, a missed 3-pointer that would have leveled the count in the final nanosecond, the Cougars respected the Utes in a big way as they greeted them on the floor under a scoreboard that read: BYU 61, Utah 58.
“It was a war out there,” said Haws, who got 14 points mostly the hard way, 10 of them coming at the foul line. “A battle right to the very end. ... They’re a different team than they were last year.”
Said Dave Rose: “I told Larry [Krystkowiak] after the game that I was really impressed with his team. They’re tough. They play together. They’re playing for one reason — to win.”
It wasn’t so long ago that the Utes played for other reasons — not to embarrass themselves, not to besmirch a proud basketball tradition, not to get another Utah coach fired.
“That was a good win,” Rose said. ‘That’s a really good win for our team.”
He called it a “slugfest.”
In the past, it would have been a foregone conclusion, a breeze, a joke, a laugh a minute.
Not on this night.
Utah came out against BYU and opened that big lead — “I was impressed with our focus and energy,” Krystkowiak said — via the aforementioned defense, a box-and-one on Haws, and rawboned rebounding and patience on offense. The Utes shot 46 percent in the opening 20 minutes against the Cougars’ 29 percent. They hit the glass hard, getting six more boards. They outscored BYU in the paint, 18-6, over that span.
In the second 20, the Cougars switched from man defense to a zone. They came in waves to close a nine-point deficit. With Haws and Brandon Davies hitting only six of 20 shots, it was left to Matt Carlino, who the Utes practically begged to shoot, to take up the slack. The point guard did, making seven of 13 attempts, five of 10 from three.
“If you’re a shooter,” he said, “you have to keep shooting.”
As for playing the improved Utes, Carlino said: “It was a great thing to be a part of.”
There had been promising signs for Utah coming in, foremost among them the crushing it had put on a decent Boise State team, a win that boosted the Utes’ record to 6-2.
If Utah could take out BYU in front of its home crowd in a place where the Utes hadn’t won since 2005 ...
On the other hand, questions had emerged about BYU’s own strength, or lack thereof, this season. Vulnerability had shown its ugly face in three losses against five wins thus far, including a complete 21-point owning of the Cougars by Iowa State.
Turns out, the measuring went both ways in this meeting.
But with the zone causing Utah problems and suddenly better shooting coming from the Cougars, BYU crawled back against the Utes, taking the lead on a Haws three-point play with just under three minutes left. Haws hit two free throws before Utah missed its last couple of bombs at the end.
Rose then shook the hands of the Utes, took in a deep sigh, walked off the court, and, later, found enough humor to rib a certain columnist: “When I saw you here,” he said, echoing a former Utah coach, “the first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Nice of you to show up.’”
No, that was from back when the Utes would have lost by 20.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM/97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.