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COUGARS TOP UTES FOR SHARE OF WAC TITLE

OK, let's hear it for the Brigham Young Cougars, for Nathan Call and Gary Trost and most of all Roger Reid. On Saturday night, they walked into the Huntsman Center - home of archrival Utah and hostile territory if ever there was one - and left with a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship, if not the nets.

The Cougars had lost every big road game they had faced this season, but when it counted most, when the championship was on the line, when 5,000 Majerus Masks and the fifth largest crowd in Utah history (15,429) stared at them from the stands, they delivered. The Cougs won 87-73 to make a clean sweep of the Utes this year.Afterward, Reid, the man who overhauled and rebuilt a new team into a champion in a single year, walked behind the bench to hug his wife, then rushed back onto the court.

"Get the nets!" he called. But then he eyed the unfriendly and booing crowd, thought better of it and herded the Cougars into the locker room.

"We thought the crowd would probably be offended," said Call.

For a time it was a close game. At halftime it was 44-43, BYU, but then the Cougars made a 13-2 run midway through the second half and their rivals never recovered.

Using their considerable height advantage, the Cougars packed the ball inside, where the 6-foot-10 Trost had 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and 6-10 Russell Larson had 17 points.

"We couldn't help out because they're the best three-point shooting team in the league," said Utah coach Rick Majerus.

Call, undoubtedly the best point guard in the WAC, made 6 of 6 shots, including all four of his three-point attempts. He finished with 17 points, 4 assists and 0 turnovers.

"I'm proud of this team," said Reid. "We lost a lot of people from last year, but no one complained."

The Cougars, who finished second to Utah a year ago, started fresh this season. They lost four of last year's starters - 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley and 6-8 Ken Roberts to missions and Steve Schreiner and Scott Moon to graduation. Yet somehow BYU produced a 22-6 record and tied UTEP for the WAC title with a 12-4 league record.

BYU, as the No. 1 seed, will open the WAC Tournament against No. 8 seed Air Force Thursday night in Fort Collins.

If Majerus was beaten Saturday night, he was not broken. "We could play them again," he said. Shortly after the game was finished he and his coaches already were discussing other defensive strategies they could use if they face the Cougars again. Indeed these two teams could very well meet in the second round of the WAC tournament.

"If we played BYU 10 times, we'd probably lose eight times," said Majerus. "I've said it before, BYU is very good."

The Utes finish the regular seasons with records of 19-9 and 9-7 - good for fourth in the WAC. They open against fifth-seeded Hawaii Thursday night in the WAC tournament.

"Our goal was to win the championship," said Call. "We knew we had the players to do it."

The Utes went all out to stop the Cougs' championship plans. They handed out 5,000 Rick Majerus masks - surely a BYU kind of nightmare - at the gate. The Crimson Line - the halftime dancing group - wore Majerus masks and the coach's trademark sweater during their prformance. Fans held up a poster of a scantily clad female behind the backboard as the Cougars shot foul shots. All to no avail.

Majerus himself unveiled a few new wrinkles, primarily to counter the size factor. Only twice this season has he put both of his centers - Paul Afeaki and Antoine Davison - on the floor at the same time. Both times it was against BYU. Both times it failed. Afeaki got in early foul trouble and played cautiously the rest of the night after spending much of the first half on the bench.

Was it only wishful thinking or just premature planning that Josh Grant was pictured on the cover of the game program?

"We tried like hell to plug up the holes inside," said Majerus.

If Trost and Co. were unstoppable on offense, they were also impenetratable on defense. Afeaki, a dominating 16-point scorer in league play, was able to take just four shots all night and finished with four points.

"They denied me the ball," said Afeaki. "Everytime the ball came to my side, they collapsed on me."

"They had a lot of guys around him, and our outside people couldn't make a shot," said Majerus.

Majerus finally eventually went to the end of his bench for more size - specifically, to 6-9 Larry (Sugar) Cain, who averages 1.6 points per game, and sat out seven games entirely. Cain entered the game in the first half to kill time for Afeaki, but then turned into a force. He totaled 10 points, 5 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 assist in 18 minutes of play. But he wasn't enough.

Larson made a pair of free throws and scored inside to start the game's decisive second-half run. Call and Heslop each sank a trey, and then Cal took a steal the length of the court, and peformed a 360-degree turn to shake his defender for a layup. That gave BYU a 69-55 lead from which Utah never recovered.

"Our frame of mind is that we're going to come back and win the tournament," said Afeaki.