Three keys to UVU men’s basketball’s upset win over BYU
One of the great lines from the hockey movie “Miracle” is when USA head coach Herb Brooks tells his players that “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
That was what the UVU men’s basketball team had Wednesday night at the UCCU Center in Orem as they welcomed No. 12-ranked BYU to their home court, the highest-ranked opponent the Wolverines had ever hosted.
After 45 minutes of tough, intense, sometimes ugly basketball, the scoreboard read: UVU 72, BYU 65.
The Wolverines had needed overtime but they had done it, finally getting their first win against a ranked opponent (having gone 0-10 prior to that contest).
It was a moment to savor for UVU players, coaches and fans.
“It was a surreal feeling at the time,” Wolverine sophomore center Fardaws Aimaq said after the game. “I still think I’m trying to process it. At the end of the day, I’m just so proud of our guys. They stepped up and played well enough for us to win this game. We were going to play as hard as we can. Shots sometimes don’t fall but the way that we play — our fight, our nastiness, our ability to get to the paint, to get fouls and control the glass — that obviously showed out tonight.”
It took a lot of things to fall into place for UVU to emerge victorious but here’s a look at the three key elements of the monumental Wolverine upset:
1. Commitment to defense
With less than three-and-a-half minutes left in the game, UVU had only tallied 43 points. Against many opponents, that would be a disaster, one where the Wolverines would likely be facing a double-digit deficit.
But in this game, thanks to UVU’s tenacious, relentless defensive pressure, the Cougars only led by seven points.
Many of the Wolverine players know the offensive scheme BYU runs, since either they played for Cougar head coach Mark Pope at UVU or played for him at BYU. The home team showed from the start it was determined not to let the Cougars get the offensive flow they wanted.
“Our guys have really bought in,” Wolverine head coach Mark Madsen said. “Our defensive coordinator Jarred Jackson has brought a lot of great principles and our guys have embraced that.”
He said it helps to have a “big-time rim-protector” like Aimaq but said the biggest difference has been how much the players put into their defensive performance.
“It helps to have a lot of wing defenders who love defense,” Madsen said. “Justin Harmon loves defends. Le’Tre Darthard loves defense. Connor Harding loves defense. Blaze Nield often switches onto the other team’s best players. We have group the loves defense.”
Aimaq talked about how the Wolverines wanted to bring “energy, fight, and nastiness” to the game and that definitely showed on the defensive end.
2. Rebounding determination
One of the best matchups of the game was seeing Aimaq, the nation’s second-leading rebounder at 14.8 boards per game, go up against the BYU inside players who are also aggressive going after the ball.
“In preparing for them, the coaches emphasized that they are a really good rebounding team,” Aimaq said. “BYU crashes almost four guys every single time. I think they had five or six players averaging over two offensive rebounds per game. We reiterated that every day in practice but the way we play, we can match up with anybody. We have size to go big, the personnel to go small. We adjusted to how they played.”
In a game where both teams struggled to shoot the ball (the Cougars shot 31.9% from the field, UVU shot 31.3%), that meant there were a lot of opportunities for guys to get rebounds.
BYU did end up winning the rebounding battle on the stat sheet, 38-37, and had two more offensive rebounds.
But the Wolverines kept the Cougars from turning those into baskets as BYU had just five second-chance points, compared to eight for UVU. That made a big difference in a game where neither team had an offensive rhythm.
3. Close-game confidence
When BYU guard Spencer Johnson put in the game-tying layup with less than two seconds to play in regulation, forcing the overtime period, it might have seemed like the Cougars were in position to seize control of the game.
Not only had they erased a three-point Wolverine advantage in the final seconds but UVU guard Le’Tre Darthard had fouled out and Aimaq had four fouls.
But the Wolverines — unlike the Cougars — had been here before.
BYU went eight minutes without a field goal before Johnson’s shot, then had another crushing two-minute scoring drought in the extra period.
UVU, one the other hand, had already won three overtime games and had plenty of confidence it could do it again.
“All we said before was that if it was going into overtime, we were going to win,” Aimaq said.
Madsen said that associated head coach Todd Phillips told the Wolverines before the game that “if this games goes to overtime, we know we are winning it.”
“Our players really showed that confidence and executed,” Madsen said.
It was UVU who made most of the smart plays down the stretch, led by Aimaq and guard Justin Harmon (a career-high 24 points), that allowed the Wolverines to win.