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Here’s what undefeated Runnin’ Utes will rely on to upset No. 18 BYU

Both teams are at least 5-0 entering the rivalry game for the first time since the 1912-13 season, and both teams are winning this year with defense and rebounding

Utah basketball coach Craig Smith talks to his players in a team huddle as the team opens camp on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
Utah coach Craig Smith talks to his players at Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Smith will get his first taste of the Utah-BYU rivalry when the two teams meet Saturday night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Two years after Utah and BYU combined to put up 197 points in an overtime clash at the Huntsman Center, Saturday’s matchup between the red-hot instate rivals figures to be far less offensive.

In fact, points could be at a premium, seeing as how Utah (5-0) is No. 22 in scoring defense (57.2 ppg.) and No. 18 BYU (5-0) is No. 35 (58.6) and both teams are among the nation’s leaders in field goal and 3-point field goal percentage defense.

Tipoff is at 7:30 p.m. and the 262nd meeting between the red and the blue will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks, with Roxy Bernstein and Don MacLean on the call. BYU leads the series 132-129 and won last year’s game in Provo, 82-64.

According to Utah’s game notes, it is the first matchup between the Utes and Cougars since the 1912-13 season where both teams were at least 5-0 entering the game. Utah won that contest 49-31 on Feb. 8, 1913.

The teams will probably combine for more than 80 points this time around, but maybe not by much more. Their defenses have been that good.

Utah, for instance, is 27th in field goal percentage defense (.366) and 26th in 3-point field goal defense (.256).

“Our guys have really bought in on that end,” Utah coach Craig Smith said Wednesday, a couple days after the Utes (5-0) returned from Daytona Beach, Florida, with the Sunshine Slam tournament trophy. “… I think it says a lot about our guys and the mental makeup of just digging in and trying to make life difficult for our opponents up to this point. Hopefully we can keep it going, but it will be a different test on Saturday against BYU.”

Smith was 0-3 as Utah State’s head coach against BYU, although last year he missed BYU’s 67-64 win at the Spectrum in Logan because he tested positive for COVID-19 despite being asymptomatic.

“I was out for the count. Well, I wasn’t (really) out,” he said. “I was yelling at my monitor in my basement. … So it kinda sucked.”

Smith said it is “amazing” how close the series is, with BYU having overtaken Utah the last decade during the Larry Krystkowiak era.

BYU has won three of the last four, but Utah has won four of the last seven. The Cougars began dominating the series in 2007, and have won 14 of 19 since 2007.

Smith said he will “embrace” the rivalry, and has encouraged his players — including eight newcomers to the team — to do the same.

“There is definitely a lot of juice for this one,” Smith said. “But our guys have had juice. It has been very few and far between where we have had to ride our guys about more energy and more toughness. Our guys have really been about that. But you can certainly feel that opponent that is coming up (creates a heightened buzz).”

Smith’s first introduction to the BYU-Utah rivalry came three years ago at Vivint Arena in downtown Salt Lake City when the Utes and Cougars squared off in the Beehive Classic and Smith’s Aggies were there preparing to face Weber State in the second game.

“You could feel the electricity in that building that afternoon,” he said. “And that was really cool. It was very, very intense, and I was just an innocent bystander in this whole deal.”

Runnin’ Utes senior Riley Battin’s first taste of the rivalry was that 2018 game Smith referenced. Battin, who is from Southern California, remembers learning about the rivalry as a freshman that year from teammate Parker Van Dyke, the Salt Lake City native.

“I could just see the fire in him,” Battin said. “I try to carry that on to some of the guys that might not know the gravity of it.”

Utes guard Jaxon Brenchley, one of four players on the team from Utah, said he tells out-of-state teammates to be ready for an emotional roller-coaster from the opening tip to the final whistle.

“I think it is just a battle between two great teams, two great schools,” said Brenchley, who is from Providence, in the Cache Valley. “Every game is hard-fought, so we are excited to see what happens Saturday. It should be a good one, and we are excited to compete.”

Bingham’s Branden Carlson, Wasatch’s Eli Ballstaedt and Olympus’ Harrison Creer are the other native Utahns on Smith’s roster.

Another nugget from Utah’s game notes: First-year Utah coaches are 3-12 in their first meeting against BYU. Only Thomas Fitzpatrick (2018), Jerry Pimm (1975) and Ray Giacoletti (2005) pulled off wins in their debut’s against the Cougars.

Utah is trying to start 6-0 for the first time since the 2013-14 season; BYU last started a season 6-0 in 2010-11, when it was 10-0 before falling to UCLA.