This is a disjointed, unorthodox, COVID-fueled basketball season, with not everyone being on equal footing in terms of games played and practice time logged.
For example, BYU played its eighth game of the season late Saturday afternoon vs. the University of Utah, which was playing only its third game after dealing with a virus outbreak.
Long story short, the Cougars looked very much like a team with more game experience, more practice time logged in registering an 82-64 win over the Utes that was mostly one-sided on both ends.
After getting outrebounded to the tune of plus-17 on Tuesday in a win over Idaho State, Utah was outrebounded by 16 vs. the Cougars, who had 36 points in the paint. Richard Harward, a 6-foot-11 junior center Richard Harward had 15 points on 7-for-7 shooting to go along with seven rebounds for BYU. All seven of Harward’s field goals were at the rim.
“Even in a normal year, you don’t put this schedule together,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said, referencing the fact the Cougars opened the season by playing eight games in 18 days. “I’m just excited for my guys, I’m so proud of how they have managed this gauntlet of a schedule so far, and I’m really excited for them.”
A brisk early pace and a closely-contested first 8:00 on both ends soon gave way to the reality of the situation. Harward assumed control of the paint, and freshman forward Caleb Lohner, a one-time Utah signee, continued to show the frontcourt versatility that led the Utes to sign him in the first place out of Wasatch Academy. Lohner finished with a game-high 10 rebounds to go along with eight points.
BYU (6-2) spent the first half living at the rim, dropping in 18 points in the paint, much of it coming during a 15-2 run that gave the Cougars the momentum, not to mention the lead, for good.
A Kolby Lee dunk off the fastbreak gave BYU a 19-16 advantage. Utah Valley graduate transfer Brandon Averette followed that with a 3-pointer from the left wing, and Harward’s drop-step for a layup with Branden Carlson guarding him capped the run to give the Cougars a 24-16 lead with 6:53 before halftime.
That first-half lead ballooned to as many as 14 at the 2:27 mark after a midrange jumper from junior shooting guard Connor Harding.
“Tests like these are always good for improvement,” said Utah junior forward Riley Battin, who finished with 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting. “This was our first road game, there are some guys that have never played in a road atmosphere before, so just getting that experience and seeing where we can improve from games like these can only help us moving forward.”
One young Ute without the big-game road experience is freshman combo guard Pelle Larsson. After a highly-optimistic start to his college career, the Swedish national went scoreless on three shot attempts in just 12 minutes off the bench.
Larsson’s struggles were a microcosm of Utah’s day. The Utes shot 36.4% from the floor and 32.1% from 3-point range. Senior guard Alfonso Plummer, Utah’s leading scorer, finished with a game-high 19 points, but needed 15 shot attempts to get there, while Timmy Allen scored just one first-half point. The All-Pac-12 junior wing finished with nine points on just 3-for-11 shooting.
Sophomore point guard Rylan Jones, the overtime hero of last season’s Utah-BYU game, had a tough go of it on Saturday, finishing with seven points on 2-for-10 shooting and 1 for 5 from deep, while also being tasked with guarding Alex Barcello. BYU did not need much from Barcello, who finished with just five points on four shot attempts in 33 minutes.
“At the end of the day, when you’re presented with an open shot, they have to go in,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “It’s not from a lack of attempts, or practice, or working.”
One of college basketball’s underrated rivalries, BYU now leads Utah all-time, 132-129, with next season’s matchup scheduled to be back at the Huntsman Center.