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Slipped away: BYU men’s basketball comeback falls short at Utah

By Darnell Dickson - | Dec 9, 2023

Courtesy BYU Photo

BYU's Richie Saunders goes in for a layup during a men's college basketball game against Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

SALT LAKE CITY — Well, we found out what would happen if BYU wasn’t hitting from the 3-point line.

A big fat loss.

And not just any old “L.”

An “L” to the Cougars bitter rivals in front of a sellout crowd at the Huntsman Center that was a sea of red and blue.

No. 14 BYU — which made just 7 of 30 (23%) from beyond the arc — trailed Utah by as many as 16 points in the second half on Saturday, missed a boatload of shots and generally struggled to resemble the team that had won its first eight games.

Courtesy BYU Photo

A BYU fan stands up during a men's basketball game against Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

But the Cougars hit the offensive boards hard and tightened up defensively in the second half, finding themselves with the ball and down by just two points with 9.9 seconds to play.

BYU never got a shot off, turning the ball over and coming out on the short end of 73-69 final.

“The really nice thing for us is we’re going to be in this environment 20 times the rest of the season,” Cougar coach Mark Pope said, alluding to the program’s first year in the Big 12 Conference. “I’m proud of the way the guys responded. We just came up a little short and weren’t quite good enough at being us the whole night. We had this urgency to fix things by ourselves and that’s not us.”

BYU, down 45-31 at halftime, trailed 49-33 with 18:38 to play and by double digits most of the second half. The Utes led 71-64 with 1:01 to play but the Cougars nearly made a miraculous comeback.

Aly Khalifa made two of three free throws, then Dallin Hall stole the ball in the backcourt and Richie Saunders drained a triple, trimming the deficit to 71-69 with 39.6 seconds remaining. BYU played out its defensive possession and held, getting the ball back with just under 10 seconds to play.

Courtesy BYU Photo

BYU's Atiki Ally Atiki dunks the ball during a men's college basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

Hall tried to turn the corner on a mismatch with Utah’s 6-foot-8 Keba Keita but lost control of the ball. He leaped out of bounds but saved the ball inbounds right to the Utes Rollie Worster, who was fouled with 1.8 seconds remaining. Worster made two free throws for the final margin.

“I wanted to have a go-game and a wraparound on the weak side,” Pope said about the final possession. “Aly did a great job getting a catch and Dallin did a nice job of coming open free and then he just lost the handle. We kind of had a look for him to get downhill but also to come to two feet and then we had some curl stuff on the back end.”

Jaxson Robinson led BYU with 17 points and Saunders (13), Hall (11), Spencer Johnson (10) and Trevin Knell (10) also reached double figures. Noah Waterman, who had scored in double figures in four of his past five games, went scoreless Saturday on seven shots, including 0-for-6 from the 3-point line.

While it was a tough night shooting the guarded shots, the Cougars also struggled on the unguarded ones, too. BYU was just 10 of 18 (56%) from the foul line, including five misses in the final five minutes while attempting to make a comeback.

“What was encouraging was that we knew that even when we aren’t having our best shooting night or maybe when things aren’t going right we still put ourselves in a position to win,” Johnson said. “There were stretches where we really felt like us as a team where the ball was popping around. Then there were stretches where the ball got sticky and we didn’t feel like us offensively. So probably that inconsistency.”

Courtesy BYU

BYU's Spencer Johnson drives against Utah's Rollie Woorster in a men's college basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

Madsen scored 11 points in the first 13 minutes of the game and led Utah (7-2) with 17. Branden Carlson had 15 points and eight rebounds and Keita came off the bench to make 5 of 6 shots to finish with 10 points.

BYU led just once in the game at 3-2 in the opening moments. The rest of the time, the Cougars had to chase a deficit and never really challenged until the end. That was the result of a switch to a zone defense (Utah was 57% from the field in the first half, 41% in the second) and some good work on the offensive boards. The Cougars finished with 17 offensive rebounds and held a 20-6 advantage in second-chance points.

“We were a little nervous about like, ‘Hey, this is a rivalry game.'” Johnson said. “You have so much emotion that has spilled into the wrong areas of the game where we had a really solid game plan coming in and we just kind of got sidetracked.”

BYU made just 2 of 11 from the field to start the game while Utah was 6 of 9, pushing out to an early 15-5 lead. Despite 10 first half points from Robinson off the bench, the Cougars got burned by the Utes post player for easy dunks and Madsen’s outside shooting.

The comeback came slowly. A rebound basket by Trey Stewart and a nifty reverse layup by Robinson got BYU within six at 58-52 with 9:12 to play. The Cougars stiffened defensively and had four chances to cut into the lead, but couldn’t find the offense to make the charge until late.

Courtesy BYU Photo

BYU's Jaxson Robinson drives the ball during a men's college basketball game against Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

“Sometimes the emotion of the game pulls you somewhere that is not you,” Pope said. “It’s very fixable and our guys want to fix it. It’s coming from caring too much, not caring not enough. We just didn’t quite have enough discipline.

“It’s a lack of focus on the way we play the game. Our way wins. When we play like us, we win. It just got away from us too much. I’m not taking any credit away from Utah. This Utah team is terrific. Our job in these situations is, ‘Can we be us?’ And in the way we’re us, we’ll win.”

Saturday was the first game this season the Cougars didn’t make double figure 3-point shots.

BYU (8-1) begins a five-game home stand on Wednesday against Denver, with Georgia State coming to the Marriott Center on Saturday.


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