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Utes turn big rivalry into a joke

BASKETBALL GAMES between BYU and Utah used to be about white knuckles and a race to the buzzer. Now it's twiddling thumbs and a race to the exits.

"It's not the same," said Michael Doleac.And it's not. Take Thursday's sleepy rematch in the Huntsman Center, for example - and keep it, for all we care. The Utes - the team so good that it takes three referees to beat them - defeated the Cougars 83-68 while trying mightily to stifle a yawn and pay attention. They could have won by a much bigger margin, but their coach, Rick Majerus, emptied his bench early.

"He could have left his players in, but he didn't and I appreciate that he didn't," said BYU coach Steve Cleveland.

Rivalry has been replaced by chivalry.

This is what the old grudge match has become: Cleveland, who is to enthusiasm what Majerus is to wit, said the game was good because he "got a chance to look at several players."

Great. The BYU-Utah game has turned into a tryout.

The Cougars' season, Cleveland continued, will be "more than just playing games. We are trying to build a program. We are evaluating players."

Pardon our dust.

It takes two to make a rivalry. Anything less is just a game or a poor imitation. The Utes have beaten the Cougs seven games in a row - by an average of 16 points.

The old rivals have resided on different sides of the tracks for a couple of years. The Utes (address: Easy Street) boast a No. 5 national ranking and a 19-1 record. The Cougs, 1-25 last year, are 6-16 and have won once in eight league games. They have nine players who are playing their first year of Division I basketball.

Beating the Cougars has become routine for the Utes. Tension has been replaced with tedium, mystery with predictability. Even Ute fans seemed largely disinterested in the goings on Thursday. They were more concerned with beating the rush. They headed for the parking lot with five minutes left in the game.

In the old days, nobody even went to the restroom unless it was halftime or the game was finished.

You know times have changed when a 16-point win over BYU is ho-hum. But it's the same in Provo. "We beat them by 10 in Provo (last month), and they were happy about it," marveled one Ute official.

Things were a lot more fun when BYU brought a game to The Game.

"My freshman and sophomore years, it was always a battle," said Doleac, a senior. "They had talented players down there and it was a tough game. It's not like that anymore."

"This was one of the least hyped games I've ever seen," said Drew Hansen, another Ute senior. "It used to be a lot different."

The best thing anybody could say about Thursday's game is that the Cougars played hard. As if anybody played this rivalry any other way.

It was probably not the best night for the Cougars to show up in the Huntsman Center anyway. Utah had its 18-game winning streak ended in Albuquerque five days earlier when the Lobos mugged Andre Miller in broad daylight and got away with it. The Western Athletic Conference, after receiving outraged messages from around the country, fessed up this week and said the referees blew it, but, as Doleac said, "They're not going to change the score."

The Utes have been anxious to play another game ever since then, and here came the Cougars. We'll dispense with the game details, except to note that the Utes canned nine treys and led by as many as 22 points. Talk about excitement. Most of the night was spent standing at the foul line. There were 75 free-throw attempts.

"The referees called a tight game," Doleac noted.

Question: Where were these guys when the Utes needed them Sunday?

(By the way, Lonnie Dixon is recovering nicely after having the whistle surgically removed from his throat.)

For his part, Cleveland was realistic about the loss, but he's hoping for better days. "There will be a day when BYU competes again with Utah," he said. "I promise you."

Meanwhile, the rivalry, as we know it, is on hold.