BYU basketball ‘out-toughed’ Utah Runnin’ Utes in 75-66 win

Sophomore big man Fousseyni Traore scores Cougars’ first 10 points as they set tone with physical play.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Atiki Ally Atiki (4) and Utah Utes center Keba Keita (13) fight for a loose ball as Brigham Young University hosts University of Utah in Provo, Dec. 17, 2022.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Noah Waterman (0) pulls in the rebound as Brigham Young University hosts University of Utah in Provo, Dec. 17, 2022.

Provo • Just off the playing floor at the Marriott Center, minutes removed from losing to his program’s forever in-state rival, University of Utah head coach Craig Smith was clearly, rightfully, even uncharacteristically in a sour mood.

The reasoning was obvious, and it’s not just because the Utes flatly lost to BYU at the Marriott Center, 75-66. For the better part of the past month, Smith’s team has been the aggressor, or at least willing to answer when an opponent tries to dictate things.

“I thought they out-toughed us in every aspect, and I thought their crowd really impacted that game, and we just didn’t handle some things well,” Smith said.

BYU (8-5) made no secret of what it wanted to do early. It went directly inside to sophomore big man Fousseyni Traore, a strategy that bore out as the former Wastach Academy big man scored the first 10 points, setting a tone that would be featured for the rest of the evening.

Traore fought through first-half foul trouble to finish with 17 points on 6-for-10 shooting to go along with eight rebounds in 25 minutes of work.

“I thought [Traore] started out the game terrific,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said. “We were super nervous about him. I kind of wrote him off for this game, honestly, because he’s had some nagging injuries that have lasted way longer than we thought [they] would. When you watch [Traore] work on the offensive glass, there’s some times where he elevates and then it’s almost like — I know this is not physically possible, but then he elevates a little bit more and all you guys that have watched him for the last year and a half know what I mean. He did that early on around the rim. I thought he was really good. He’s super important. We don’t have a lot of things on our team right now that stabilize us, but [Traore] can stabilize us a little bit. I thought he was terrific tonight.”

The Cougars won the rebounding battle. They had nine offensive boards, 14 second-chance points, and turned 14 Utah turnovers into 21 points.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Gideon George (5) blocks Utah Utes guard Gabe Madsen (55) as Brigham Young University hosts University of Utah in Provo, Dec. 17, 2022.

BYU led for 33:39 of this game, and even as Utah finally decided to be the aggressor, cutting a 15-point second-half deficit to three with 2:46 to play following a Branden Carlson layup, it never felt like the Utes were going to get over the hump.

They indeed never did get over the hump as BYU finally restored some order down the other end. A 12-foot jumper from senior guard Rudi Williams with 2:22 left pushed the lead back to five. Williams finished with a game-high 26 points on 9-for-13 shooting.

“In-state games are a big deal, and it’s not about who’s scoring the points and who’s getting the rebounds,” Williams said. “It’s the little things like diving on the floor, winning 50-50 balls, second-chance points, offensive rebounding and stuff like that. The ugly stuff. I feel like we dominated in that department.”

Following a Gabe Madsen turnover, Dallin Hall’s 3-pointer from the left wing off a second-chance opportunity was the dagger, extending BYU to a 65-57 lead with 1:49 to play. That sequence was a microcosm of Utah’s night.

An offensive rebound yielded, a second-chance yielded, the opponent cashing in on the second chance.

“They were good tonight, they definitely took it to us,” said Carlson, who finished with 18 points and six rebounds in 32 minutes. “Our goal was to go in and be the aggressor, but we didn’t achieve that. They were definitely the aggressor, for sure.”