It had been 630 days since the Huntsman Center had seen a legitimate big-game crowd.
Six-hundred-and-thirty days ago, 10,886 fans showed up at one of the nation’s underrated college basketball cathedrals to watch the University of Utah win a wild overtime thriller over Colorado. That amount of time was enough to watch Both Gach, the hero of that March 7, 2020 win, transfer to Minnesota, play last season for the Gophers, then transfer back to Utah under a new coaching staff.
Last season, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no fans allowed in any Pac-12 building. Utah’s first three opponents this season - Abilene Christian, Sacramento State and Bethune Cookman - weren’t going to move the needle, but Saturday’s opponent, 18th-ranked BYU, was surely going to draw some people.
Saturday night may have been the Utes’ fourth home game of the season, but for all intents and purposes, the Huntsman Center awoke from a 20-month slumber during the Cougars’ 75-64 win, which moved them to 6-0, including shelflife, resume-building wins over San Diego State in Provo and then-No. 12 Oregon on a pseudo-neutral floor in Portland.
For a 7:30 p.m. tipoff on a Saturday night, in the middle of a BYU football game and when seemingly every Utah fan is focusing on football, there were roughly 9,000 people in their seats. By the first half’s under-12 media timeout, the place had filled in nicely. The announced attendance figure of 11,443 was accurate, not merely a “tickets distributed” figure.
“Great energy in the Huntsman Center tonight, it was great, and just that roar going,” Utah head coach Craig Smith said. “Fans impact winning in all sports, but I would say specifically basketball with the energy that they bring, with the enthusiasm that they bring.”
The energy in the building was palpable as Utah, which lost Dusan Mahorcic for the night to an apparent first-half knee injury, and was already playing thin, played a bigger, physical BYU team to a standstill. The Utes (5-1) got crushed on the boards and gave up too many points in the paint, but led by two at the break.
Utah’s upset bid lasted until there was about 13:00 to play in the second half. At that point, BYU started to lean on the Utes a little harder. A little lefty hook in the lane from former Utah commit Caleb Lohner, Alex Barcello knifed through the lane and got to the rim, and a Lohner steal near midcourt got kicked ahead to Gavin Baxter, who finished on a breakaway dunk.
Suddenly, Utah was down eight at 48-40, and the BYU contingent inside the Huntsman Center started to get louder. Utah hung around, cutting a 12-point deficit down to six on a number of occasions inside the final 6:00, but it couldn’t get back over the hump.
Ultimately, the Utes got crushed on the board to the tune of minus-17. They gave up 48 points in the paint, 17 second-chance points, and yielded 18 offensive rebounds. All of this came without Mahorcic, who left the Huntsman Center on crutches. Smith lamented postgame that he planned to go big much of the time with Mahorcic and Branden Carlson. That plan changed when Mahorcic went down, Utah going smaller than it would have liked.
As the final seconds ticked away, “B-Y-U” chants began to rain down from the upper bowl, which was uncurtained for the first time this season.
Utah now faces the prospect of no Mahorcic, which gets tacked on to the fact that Marco Anthony, Utah’s ace perimeter defender, sat on Saturday with an ankle injury suffered vs. Tulsa. Smith said Anthony did not even go through shootaround on Saturday, and that his status for Wednesday’s Pac-12 opener against USC is up in the air.
To that, tack on Gabe Madsen’s continued absence for what Utah has called a “non-COVID sickness” and Bostyn Holt being out for the season with a torn ACL. The Utes are essentially seven-deep right now until Anthony and Madsen are ready to come back.