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Cougars hold off Aztecs, run home win streak to 29

SHARE Cougars hold off Aztecs, run home win streak to 29

PROVO — Line up the BYU and San Diego State basketball players next to each other in a hotel lobby somewhere, and the Cougars wouldn't seem to stand a chance against the sleeker Aztecs.

But put them in the Marriott Center filled with 19,411 screaming fans, and the guys dressed in blue-and-white uniforms become, well, unbeatable.

In the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams, BYU soundly defeated a SDSU squad will likely vie for the league crown, 75-64. With the win, the Cougars (11-3 overall) extended their homecourt winning streak to 29 games — now the second-longest in the nation.

Oh, SDSU (10-5) did make things interesting down the stretch, whittling a 17-point Cougar lead to four with about three minutes remaining. But for the most part, BYU was in command. The Cougars are defending their MWC title, with, naturally, their defense.

"We're not the biggest, strongest or most athletic team, but we can play good defense," said point guard Matt Montague, who scored eight points and had a team-high eight rebounds. "That's something we can control."

"They're not who they are because they don't play on both ends of the floor," SDSU coach Steve Fisher said of the Cougars.

San Diego State entered the game with three of the league's top scorers — Al Faux (18.8 points per game), Randy Holcomb (18.1) and Tony Bland (17.8). "They're a handful," said BYU coach Steve Cleveland.

Holcomb, whom Cleveland calls the best player in the conference, scored 21 points on 10-for-14 shooting from the floor and collected 11 rebounds.

"He's strong and physical," said Travis Hansen, who was one of the Cougars who guarded Holcomb — or tried to. "He can drive and spin. He's a good all-around player."

However, the 6-foot-9 Holcomb didn't get enough help from his teammates. Mike Mackell tallied 15 points and Faux had a modest 14 points on 5-for-18 shooting. Bland, a transfer from Syracuse, went oh-for-10 from the field and finished with two points.

"It wasn't his night tonight," Cleveland said. "If all those guys go for their average, we might have lost this game."

Hansen scored a team-high 19 points, while freshman center Jared Jensen recorded a career-high 17 points, with 10 of those coming in the first half.

"His effort tonight was probably the difference-maker in the game," Cleveland said of Jensen.

"At halftime we talked about the 'X' factor being Jensen," Fisher said. "You can't let him get double figures in the first half."

Meanwhile, the most surprising performance was turned in by sophomore Bart Jepsen. Cleveland inserted the 6-9 reserve forward into the lineup when starter Eric Nielsen got into foul trouble in the first half. Jepsen ended up playing 19 minutes, and he not only played solid defense, he also tied his career-high with seven points. His first two baskets were the result of slam dunks and he added a tip-in in the second half.

"That's what we need, other guys stepping up," Montague said. "Coach told him if he was open not to shoot the ball, just drive the lane and dunk. That's what he did."

Perhaps Jepsen's most crucial contribution came late in the contest. With just less than one minute remaining and BYU leading by eight, Bland drove down the middle of the lane and attempted a layup that was swatted out of bounds by Jepsen. The block drew a deafening cheer from the crowd and Jepsen simply shook his head, as if he made plays like that on a regular basis.

"He gave us good minutes," Cleveland said. "It's the first time all year he's played with a lot of energy. It's nice to see Bart step in and make a contribution."

For Jepsen, it was a satisfying day's work. Going into Saturday's game, he had been averaging less than one point per game. "Nobody's wanted it more than me," he said. "It feels good to get some confidence."

BYU hosts UNLV Tuesday at 7 p.m.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com