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Y. effort pleases coach

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By losing 71-66 at Utah late Monday night, BYU dropped its third consecutive Mountain West Conference game.

With a 2-3 record in league play (compared with the Utes' 5-0 mark) the Cougars' chances of winning a regular-season MWC championship appear to be almost as remote as Tahiti winning the gold medal in ice hockey during the upcoming Winter Olympics.

But right now, that isn't important to Cougar coach Steve Cleveland.

Against Utah, he saw something in his team he didn't see much of last week in setbacks at New Mexico and Air Force — a strong effort.

Down by as many as 16 points in the second half, BYU looked as though it was about to be blown out of the Huntsman Center. Instead, the Cougars battled back and climbed within three points with 3:22 remaining.

BYU fell behind by eight after that but sliced Utah's lead to three points again with 20 seconds left before the Utes, who haven't lost a conference game at home since 1996, closed it out.

Though the result was a tough loss, the Cougars saw their second-half performance as a step in the right direction.

"We put ourselves in a position to win the game. If we get that kind of effort over our next nine games and in the (MWC) Tournament, we will improve," Cleveland said. "Maybe winning the Mountain West title isn't in the realm of possibility. What is in the realm of possibility is getting better."

"The main characteristic of this team is that we play hard," said junior Travis Hansen, who led the Cougar rally by scoring 17 second-half points. "We lost our edge last week."

BYU regained its edge against Utah, but unfortunately for the Cougars, it wasn't enough.

As far as Cleveland is concerned, BYU lost the game because of its lack of assertiveness on offense in the first half. The difference between the two halves for the Cougars was illustrated by this stat: They failed to go to the free throw line in the first half but had 15 free-throw attempts in the second.

Utah, meanwhile, went 25-for-31 from the charity stripe for the game.

"Thirty-one free throws is something you can't overcome," Cleveland said. "That's not a reflection of the officiating, it's a reflection of our poor aggression level in the first half."

Hansen was Mr. Aggression for the Cougars. He had to be, with forward Eric Nielsen and center Jared Jensen sitting out much of the game with foul trouble and Mark Bigelow's jump shot missing-in-action.

Hansen not only drilled a pair of 3-pointers, he repeatedly drove to the hoop and wound up going 8-for-8 from the foul line. He finished with a game-high 22 points and 11 rebounds. It marked his fourth double-double of the season.

"I wanted the ball," said Hansen, whose sore right knee was wrapped in an ice pack following the game. "I decided to take it to the hole."

"Any time you get in a big-game situation, your big-game player steps up," said guard Jimmy Balderson. "Travis is a big-game player."

The Cougars' defensive game plan was to prevent the Utes from scoring from 3-point territory. Overall, BYU was very successful, as the nation's top 3-point shooting team made only 4 of 18 attempts from behind the arc.

"Defensively, we're back on the right track," Balderson said.

BYU returns home this weekend to face another unbeaten conference team, Wyoming, Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Marriott Center — where the Cougars hope to get back to winning again.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com