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Cougars will savor rare road win over Utes

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For the first time in 13 years, the Huntsman Center's put out a call for an open bar this season. Visitors welcome, on the house.

BYU answered the call and bellied up and sipped rounds of milk over and over again Wednesday night.

Burp, aaahhhh.

The 76-66 BYU win over the Utes propelled the Cougars into a three-way tie atop the Mountain West with Air Force and UNLV at the halfway point.

It was the first BYU win at Utah since 1994 when Cougar freshman Robbie Reid canned a 24-foot shot against a Rick Majerus club in the closing seconds.

Bottom line, milk moustaches and history aside, this is what was supposed to happen. Utah is struggling. BYU just won at the Pit.

The Cougars scored their average. They won battles where they were supposed to and left the arena doing something a dozen BYU teams visiting here, including all coached by former coach Steve Cleveland, just couldn't do.

"I've had a lot of nasty things yelled my way here over the years," said BYU senior Austin Ainge. "It was nice to walk off the floor pointing to the scoreboard for a change."

Ainge, who takes guff everywhere he goes because of his father Danny Ainge, tied his career high with eight assists. "This feels great. But we can't enjoy it for very long because we've got UNLV looming Saturday."

This usual trap door for BYU swung open back and forth in the first half en route to a seven-point lead at halftime, 34-27. But the hinges broke and let BYU in just 40 seconds into the second half when Cougar guards Jimmy Balderson and Lee Cummard buried back-to-back bombs to put BYU up 40-29.

"We knew we had to come out the second half and get a big start," said Balderson. "We did and we needed it because we knew they'd come back at us like they did."

This first meeting of the rivals was supposed to be a featured matchup between the league's two top centers, both sophomores, Ute Luke Nevill and Coug Trent Plaisted. Nevill did his part, scoring 26, but Plaisted rode the bench in foul trouble, managing nine points in only 19 minutes.

Going in, BYU coaches figured Nevill would get his points -- they just needed to push everywhere else and use the Cougar power forward spot, judged as a big advantage with Keena Young against Shaun Green, Steven Weigh and anybody else who shuffled in.

Young scored 21. But it was his replacement at that power forward spot most of the season, freshman Jonathan Tavernari, who became the trump card. Tavernari scored 17 points off the bench, hitting 3 of 7 from beyond the arc.

Combined, that power forward spot for the Cougars produced 38 points on 16 of 30 shooting. It was a steady contribution from beginning to end and that proved to be the backbone of BYU's win.

Utah led 17-15 when Tavernari buried a 3-point shot with 10:58 to play in the first half. BYU never trailed again.

That Young/Tavernari weapon was one pre-game strategy point that worked.

"Young may be the best player in the league right now," said Utah coach Ray Giacoletti. "I don't know who can defend him and he scores at will."

Another item was BYU 3-point shooting over Utah's defense that has struggled defending the arc all season.

BYU outshot Utah 3-0 from the arc in the first 20 minutes and finished 7 of 18.

Young used his patented soft fall-away jumper and was problematic for Utah defenders with his mobility around the key most of the night.

Said Young: "Coaches told us going in, we'd have an advantage in the post and to work hard and go after it. We did and won the game."

BYU's biggest lead, 66-47, came at the 7:33 mark after Balderson stole the ball from Nevill, the third post steal in a row from the big Australian. On the other end, BYU's seldom seen, deep reserve Gavin MacGregor tipped in a missed shot by Young and the Huntsman aisles started accepting passengers.

A rare sight for these visiting Cougars, indeed.

E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com