PROVO — For those involved in Saturday's Utah-BYU game, it was an intense two hours. All that pent-up emotion. All that angst. All those flying elbows and floor burns, people gasping for air and pouring sweat.

And that was just in the crowd.

No one who actually played in Utah's 79-75 win was old enough to recall the days of Danny Ainge, Fred Roberts, Danny Vranes and Tom Chambers.

But now they know what it was like.

It's bigger than the Farley Family Reunion, to be sure. More stressful than closing a loan, easy.

But is it more traumatic than donating an organ?

Depends on which organ.

"It's sweet," said Utah guard Marc Jackson, whose 13-for-13 night at the free-throw line secured the win. "And a sweet atmosphere to play in. They bring all their students and they've got a great fan club, so it's always nice to come down here and especially to win. Being an in-state kid and growing up here, and seeing that rivalry, it's unbelievable being a participant. "

Jackson, of course, was one of the experienced ones. A Salt Lake native, he knew all about the way life goes when you lose to your biggest rival. Win and things are good. Lose and, at very least, you'll want to sleep in a Dumpster.

That's why we love to play," said BYU forward Travis Hansen. "It's a great game."

On the new side of the rivalry were Utah freshmen Tim Drisdom, Richard Chaney and Bryant Markson and transfer Tim Frost, and BYU transfers Rafael Araujo, Kevin Woodberry and Luiz Lemes. Transfers Ricky Bower and Jake Shoff played in their first Utah-BYU game, but since Bower's older brother played at BYU and Shoff grew up in Utah, they don't count.

Surely they knew ahead of time how dramatic things get.

Saturday's game continued the nation's 10th- longest and 11th-oldest rivalry. It is a series that has slowly edged back to a ridiculously high level. It has been several years since earplugs were a necessary accessory.

For a few years in the late 1990s, the rivalry took a slight detour. Though the games were still intense, some of the steam dissipated. Crowds were smaller and speculation lighter. The Utes won 12 in a row — longest in the series — including five straight in Provo.

But BYU coach Steve Cleveland steadily built his program back to where the outcome of the game was in doubt; there it remains. Though the Utes have now won 15 of the last 18, the series was even in the six games previous to Saturday.

Even with Rick Majerus heading the Utah program (he missed Saturday's game to speak at a funeral), the rivalry was never one-sided for long. Going into Saturday's game, both teams had won 116 games, dating back to 1909. Utah now leads the all-time series for just the third time.

Meanwhile, BYU was protecting the nation's longest homecourt win streak — 44 games.

It was never just a rivalry. It was a life choice.

Hence, to no one's surprise the game started in overdrive and went from there. Virtually every basket was answered by an opposing basket. The lead never got larger than six.

Sensing something special was in the works, a near-capacity crowd of 21,412 stood and roared for much of the afternoon.

So when Utah's Britton Johnsen missed two crucial free throws with 3:08 remaining, and when BYU's Terry Nashif reciprocated with 1:50 to go, it wasn't a terrible surprise. There's a lot of pressure when you're playing in the big game.

"And a lot of noise," added Jackson.

In Jackson's case, that was fine. He could have been in bed at midnight, on Prozac, and been less calm. Down the stretch he made four straight free throws to clinch the win.

When the final horn sounded, Utah players leaped about the court, raising their fists and hugging one another. Overcelebrating, perhaps, for a game early in the conference season? Naw. In this series there's no such thing.

"It was fun," said BYU guard Mark Bigelow. "Until the final buzzer."

The sort of fun that should keep coming through infinity and beyond.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com