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Nielsen proves he is no fluke
Sophomore scores 17 points, grabs nine boards

SHARE Nielsen proves he is no fluke
Sophomore scores 17 points, grabs nine boards

LAS VEGAS -- All season long, BYU coach Steve Cleveland has been looking for offensive production from a player not named Mekeli Wesley or Terrell Lyday.

Friday night in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals against Utah, Cleveland found some much-needed scoring -- from an unlikely source.One day after posting a career-high in rebounds against New Mexico, sophomore forward Eric Nielsen poured in a career-high 17 points to help the Cougars defeat the Utes for the first time in five long seasons. He also added a team-high nine rebounds.

"This is great. It's been a dream come true in this tournament," he said. "This is a blast." It marked only the second game this season that BYU's leading scorer wasn't either Lyday or Wesley.

Knowing that Utah was going to double-team Wesley, Cleveland and his staff stayed up late Friday night to put in some isolation plays in the offense for Nielsen.

The plan worked. In fact, Cleveland had no other choice but to go to Nielsen in the first half when Wesley got into early foul trouble. Wesley played only 10 minutes in the first half.

It was Nielsen who kept BYU in the game through the first 20 minutes. While Lyday and Wesley had only two points each at halftime, Nielsen had 11.

His final two points, a layup with 2:23 left in the game, put the Cougars up 54-46. That's when BYU fans sensed the upset.

Utah certainly wasn't expecting Nielsen's sudden scoring surge. He had tallied just six points in 32 minutes in his first two games against the Utes. His previous season high was 12 points against Southern Utah.

"He was just phenomenal," Cleveland said. "I challenged Eric last night to be assertive and aggressive. He got more and more confident. We don't win this basketball game without Eric Nielsen."

Nielsen returned from a mission last summer and has struggled at times to establish himself. This week, he is playing like he's All-Conference.

THE RIVALRY IS BACK: Cleveland acknowledged that beating Utah doesn't have the same significance for him as it does for his players, especially the ones who hail from the Beehive State, who have had to endure five years of frustration.

"I'm happy for the Nate Coopers and Todd Christensens," he said. "I'm happy for the players who have been here for a few years without a rivalry . . . A new era has begun tonight. If anything, this win says we're going to be competitive again."

When the final buzzer sounded, juniors Cooper and Christensen leapt up on the courtside table in front of the BYU crowd and pumped their fists in jubilation. It was the first time they have tasted victory against a Utah team.

"It means a lot to the program," said Jeff Judkins, who left Utah last spring to become BYU's director of basketball operations. "It meant a lot to all of us."

POSTSEASON PLANS: BYU's victory gave the program its first 20-win season since 1994-95. Is that enough to get the Cougars into the NCAA tournament?

"I know one thing," Cleveland said. "We should be in the NIT now. We could win this thing (the MWC championship) and not go to the NCAAs. I'd say we're a lock for the NIT."

THIRD TIME'S A CHARM: In upsetting New Mexico and Utah this week, the Cougars have now beaten two teams in the tournament that had swept them in the regular season.

NOTES: BYU is now 3-0 this season at the Thomas & Mack Center . . . The last time the Cougars defeated the Utes in a conference tournament setting it was March 10, 1994 -- six years to the day before BYU's win on Friday . . . The Cougars are now 4-2 all-time in conference tournament games against the Utah.