Don’t let the fact that the BYU men’s basketball team extended its winning streak over Utah to seven straight games fool you into thinking this series will continue to be dominated by the Cougars.
If Saturday night’s 61-58 win over the Utes in Provo demonstrated anything, it’s that the opposite is true.
The rivalry is back — finally.
For those who love great basketball atmospheres, this is definitely a welcome development.
With more than 16,000 fans in attendance roaring their support, the last 10 minutes of the hard-fought contest were how basketball between these two tradition-rich schools should be.
“When we are behind in this building, our crowd is really loud,” said Cougar head coach Dave Rose. “Then when we get that lead, they kind of move it to another level.
“The energy that we played with in the second half, there is no question that the fans energy gives you more. Our guys got a lot of balls and rebounds, all those things I think come from the extra effort that the energy in the building helps create.”
Saturday was one of those games where the crowd played a big factor in how things played out.
“Whenever you can fill this place, it gets really rowdy,” said BYU sophomore guard Tyler Haws. “I couldn’t really hear anything at the end of the game. My ears are still kind of ringing. It’s fun. It’s what you practice all summer for and why you play the game.”
Those type of games, when like Saturday night the outcome hinges on one final shot flying toward the rim as the buzzer sounds with thousands of people holding their breath, are the by far the most memorable — particularly with a win over a rival on the line.
“Your heart stops and you think, ‘oh, shoot, that’s going to go in,’” said Cougar sophomore guard Matt Carlino. “But once it didn’t, you are just so relieved. It was such a great win.”
It wasn’t that long ago that it seemed like those were always a possibility when BYU and Utah met on the basketball floor.
But it’s been awhile.
There is no arguing that the rivalry has slipped closer to obscurity in recent years as Utah has struggled to find consistent success while BYU has had some of its best seasons ever.
Cougar fans probably would be just as happy if BYU won every game against the Utes but the apathy of blowouts — in December, no less — has been tragic for hoops fans in the state of Utah.
But the Utes are showing signs of regaining some of their former glory and that means BYU better watch out.
“That’s a great team,” said Cougar senior guard Craig Cusick. “They are really well coached. To be able to get out of there with the win is unbelievable. This is a completely different team from last year and they are going to win a lot of good games.”
Cusick is a guy who has been on both sides, since he walked on at Utah before coming down to walk on at BYU.
Since this was his final chance against his former team, he said he loved every minute — particularly since his Cougars came out on top.
“There is no better feeling, no sweeter feeling,” Cusick said. “I’m a senior and this is my last year. This is something I’ve always wanted to do and so I wanted to go out with a win. I know some of the players and I know the coaches. We fought the whole night and came back to get the win.”
He said he had no way to describe the feeling of being on the court at the end of the thriller that came down to a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We were in the locker room, jumping and celebrating, because you can’t really express it,” he explained. “You just show it by your expression and how you act. There is nothing better than getting that win.”
Ute head coach Larry Krystkowiak said he saw the overall feel of Saturday’s game as being the epitome of basketball in Utah.
“I love the state of Utah’s basketball,” he said. “There are a lot of positive things going on. It’s pretty special. We have a lot of Utah kids on the floor between both teams and it’s an incredible atmosphere.
“This, to me, is what college basketball is supposed to be all about.”
Now if only college basketball fans in Utah could look forward to a rematch like they could for so many years when the two schools played in the same conference.
Can you imagine how much fun it would be to see the Cougars heading up to the Huntsman Center, looking for the season sweep while the Utes geared up looking for revenge?
I’m not the only one who wishes it would happen.
“I would love to play them as many times as we can,” Cusick said. “I think the in-state games are really fun and playing them twice in a year would be really fun. I love playing away as well, so I would’ve loved that if we could play them again.”
Krystkowiak, however, wasn’t quite ready to commit to a home-and-home just yet.
“You have to be careful what you wish for,” he said. “I just spent a lot of time the last three days trying to figure out how to beat them once. Now I’m ready to try to figure out how to beat SMU.”
The BYU-Utah football game remains the state’s biggest annual sporting event even in its watered-down September format.
But with the Ute resurgence and the excitement of Saturday’s Cougar win, the BYU-Utah basketball showdown can once again vie for the No. 2 position.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.