Craig Smith waded through a crowded back hallway of the Huntsman Center, his shirt soaked through with water from a locker room celebration.
He was being escorted to a quiet room to begin his postgame interview. But as he rounded the corner, he stopped and made a detour.
“I think I need a fresh shirt,” he said as he dipped back to the dressing room.
Moments later, Smith popped through the crowd again. This time the water was wicked off, but his emotions were still dripping all over him in the aftermath of a 73-69 win over No. 14 BYU.
“I have never felt that,” Smith started, immediately marveling at Utah’s sellout crowd, the first since 2017. “It is my first time experiencing it like that. … We want to get Huntsman Magic back.”
What Smith and the Utes did on Saturday, toppling Utah’s biggest rival and taking down the No. 1 team in NET, will go a long way toward establishing that.
Smith, now in his third year as head coach, has produced some moments in the past. He beat No. 4 Arizona last year. He flirted with upsets before. But nothing compared to his first win in the BYU-Utah series.
This one proved that what he built his program on the last three years can work (the size, the shooting). This one came when everyone was watching, judging if Smith’s group was for real. This one was even personal, with so many of Smith’s players and staff having a different reason why they wanted to take down the Cougars.
Simply put, this moment was a statement — and proved that Utah’s basketball program can still re-capture its elite days of the past at its best.
“Is there anything that stands out? 73-69 stands out,” Smith said, grinning from ear to ear.
There was nothing fluky about what Utah did to a team that had been playing some of the best basketball in the country.
Smith built this Utah team much like he did at Utah State. He wanted a long team that could defend at a high level and punish opponents inside. He wanted to have enough shooting to make teams pay if they overplayed the middle.
And what he did to BYU was exactly that. It started with his transfer guard Gabe Madsen burying three triples. When BYU came up, Smith started pounding the Cougars inside.
Utah had a front line of 7-foot, 7-1 and 6-8. BYU simply didn’t have an answer as guards switched onto big men and the trio to Branden Carlson, Keba Keita and Lawson Lovering put up 30 points and 17 rebounds.
Outside of an eight minute stretch in the second half, Smith’s team held one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country (getting 42% of their misses) in check.
The Cougars did mount a comeback. Cutting a once 16-point lead down to two in the final minute. But when it came time to get a stop, Smith went back to his length.
He had Keita switch onto guard Dallin Hall and Hall dribbled it off his knee for a turnover to end the game.
“We have the biggest team in the country, or second,” Smith said. “It matters, you feel it. At my last school, we were one of the two biggest teams in the country.”
But this game was about so much more than just the simply basketball execution. The stage and the opponent mattered far more.
Smith has a team full of players with personal stories about why they wanted to beat BYU. Look at Carlson, who came back for a fifth year in part to play this game again.
He went into the transfer portal, but he stayed loyal to Utah and to Smith. He grew up a BYU fan and wanted another crack at the Cougars. Then he put up 15 points and eight rebounds and won his final outing — erasing a three-game losing streak.
“You are going to get me emotional here. I mean that guy is a legendary Ute,” Smith said, with tears in his eyes. “He tested the waters last year and there is lot of stuff that goes on the recruiting front behind the scenes. He had a lot options and there was never a doubt what he wanted to do. He is a Runnin’ Ute. This is a big part of why he came back and he played like it tonight. He played like a fifth-year dude. Like an All-Pac-12 dude. Played like one of the best players in the country.”
Smith also has a former BYU coach, Chris Burgess, on his staff. Burgess wanted to be the lead scout for this game. He wanted a moment like this.
“He had the [BYU ] scout last year. We had a good talk about it at the beginning of the year. We talked it over,” Smith said. “Do you want to do it again? Do you not? And he obviously wanted it and he did a heck of a job.”
And because of how personal this was, and how it happened in a rivalry, Smith had his first real moment as Utah’s head coach.
As he walked around after the final buzzer, he tried to soak it all in. He pumped his arms to the crowd and waved them on. He saw the bear hug that Hunter Erickson’s mother was giving out (another player who transferred from BYU to Utah).
Truthfully, he saw what Utah’s program, at its best, could be. With the stage and moment he delivered.
And Huntsman Magic is still alive.