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BYU basketball: Epic battle set for Cougs, Lobos

Pair of ranked teams meet for what could decide MWC crown

PROVO — In looking forward to Saturday's sell-out and hyped game at the Marriott Center between 10th-ranked New Mexico and No. 13 BYU, the Cougars are reminded of two other recent home games against high-ranked opponents — the 2006 game against No. 13 Air Force and last January's game against No. 2 Wake Forest.

Fans, mostly wearing white, were packed to the ceiling for both games and didn't sit down or shut up for the entire 40 minutes. The Marriott Center doesn't get any louder, and that's what the Cougars are expecting today for what is being billed as the biggest game in Mountain West Conference history.

"With this being the last home game, we hope we play our best," Cougars coach Dave Rose said.

The Lobos are 26-3 overall and 12-2 in the MWC, and they have won 12 straight league games. The Cougars are also 26-3 on the season and 11-2 in conference play, and would jump ahead of New Mexico in the conference standings with two road games remaining next week at Utah and TCU. Clearly, the winner of this game has a leg up on the conference regular-season title.

"It's a big game, but it's a long ways from being over," Rose said. "The most important thing of this game going into the last week of the season is the winner of this game is going to be in the driver's seat. That's a good place to be, but it doesn't guarantee anything."

Not only is today's game crucial to the MWC race and to getting a favorable seed into the NCAA Tournament, it's also the last home game for seniors Jonathan Tavernari, Chris Miles and Lamont Morgan Jr. All three will be honored in a pregame ceremony.

"We've put together a nice string here that hopefully we can continue, and Jonathan, Chris and Lamont have been a big part of that," Rose said.

Miles began his career at BYU in 2004 and was part of a team that won only nine games. Since returning from an LDS church mission, however, he's played on a conference championship team each year — and hoping to be part of a third title-winning squad. "It's what I hoped for, and truthfully what I expected," Miles said of his teams' success at BYU. "But to see it come to pass is another thing. ... There's no program I'd rather be in, and there's no teammates in the country that I'd choose over the ones that I have."

Tavernari will finish his days at BYU as the winningest player in school history, and could possibly be on four BYU teams that have won MWC regular-season championships. His parents, Roberto and Thelma, have been in town for the past two weeks and will see their son play one last time as a Cougar before they return to Sao Bernardo, Brazil, on Sunday.

"We're playing for another championship, and I'm trying to look at it as no more than that and keep my emotions aside," said Tavernari, who hopes to return someday to work in BYU's athletic department.

Morgan, who had knee surgery two weeks ago and likely won't return to action until the conference tournament, says the seniors won't let the emotion of their final game in the Marriott Center distract from the task at hand.

"It hasn't really hit me like I expect it to, but it will probably hit me at some point during the game. ... But as long as we go out there and compete for 40 minutes and get this win, I'll be very proud," Morgan said.

When the Lobos edged the Cougars in Albuquerque, guard Dairese Gary burned BYU with a career-high 26 points. To get even with the Lobos today, the Cougars certainly have to keep Gary out of the paint and off of the free-throw line.

"He had an amazing game against us there, and we'll have to figure out a way to slow him down," Rose said.

Because of New Mexico's balance, however, the Cougars can't ignore anyone. Phillip McDonald, Roman Martinez, A.J. Hardeman and Darrington Hobson are all capable of having a big game. Also, because of how the Lobos shoot the ball from the outside, the Cougars likely won't be able to rely on the same zone defense that caused San Diego State fits on Wednesday.

"They have players in every position, they have depth, they have good point-guard play, they have depth in the post, they can score on the wings and they're a good free-throw shooting team. So, they're kind of like us," Rose said.

The Cougars' game plan will again be to rebound the basketball well, then run — which is exactly how they knocked off the Aztecs on Wednesday.

"I think we have to do that again," guard Jimmer Fredette said.

GAME NOTES: BYU leads the all-time series, 74-52, and the Cougars hold a 43-15 advantage in Provo. ... The last time New Mexico won in the Marriott Center was 10 years ago. ... Officials are expecting more than 22,000 fans to attend Saturday's game.

Cougars on the air

No. 13 BYU (26-3, 11-2 MWC)

vs. No. 10 New Mexico (26-3, 12-2)

Today, 2 p.m.; Marriott Center

TV: Versus Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

e-mail: jimr@desnews.com