OREM — BYU coach Mark Pope’s return to the UCCU Center kind of turned into a nightmare scenario.
Not only did the No. 12 Cougars lose one of their starters, senior forward Gavin Baxter, to a season-ending knee injury, but they also fell in overtime to the team Pope used to coach. If that weren’t enough, they also suffered their first loss of the season.
A gritty Utah Valley University team scrapped and battled and shocked BYU 72-65 in overtime Wednesday night in front of a crowd of 7,500 at the UCCU Center.
Just a couple of weeks ago, BYU upset No. 12 Oregon. Wednesday in Orem, UVU knocked off the No. 12 team and spoiled BYU’s perfect record.
Certainly, it was an ugly game — both teams shot a miserable 31% — but the result was beautiful for the Wolverines.
UVU’s 6-foot-11 center, Fardaws Aimaq, who ranks No. 2 in the nation in rebounding, scored 24 points and pulled down 22 rebounds, while guard Justin Harmon also scored 24. BYU transfer Connor Harding added 10 points.
“Great effort by Utah Valley. Super happy for those guys,” Pope said. “(UVU coach) Mark (Madsen) does a great job with those guys. They work really hard and they have a terrific team. They played really physical and were really hungry. A ton of credit to those guys.”
As soon as the game ended, BYU players boarded the team bus and made the trip back to Provo. None were made available to interview by reporters.
“I was proud of all my guys. They fought. We just weren’t great tonight. We just weren’t good enough to win this game,” Pope said. “But it wasn’t for a lack of effort or commitment. We just weren’t great tonight. For them to hang in there, I was super proud of them.”
BYU (6-1) led 46-41 with 8:10 remaining in the game after a bucket by Alex Barcello, who finished with a team-high 17 points on 6 of 16 shooting. He also collected 11 rebounds.
Over the final eight minutes of the second half, UVU outscored BYU 14-9. In fact, the Cougars were fortunate just to force overtime.
Aimaq made one of two free throws with 7.7 seconds left in regulation to give the Wolverines a 55-53 lead. Then Harmon inexplicably fouled Spencer Johnson, putting him at the free throw line with 6.1 seconds left. Johnson missed both free throws, but the second one caromed out of bounds off of UVU. With 1.7 seconds on the clock, Johnson scored to force OT.
But in the extra period, the Wolverines (7-1) would not be denied. They outscored the Cougars 17-10 and when the final buzzer sounded, UVU fans stormed the court in celebration.
“BYU has a great team. Nothing but tremendous respect for them,” Madsen said. “My college coach Mike Montgomery (at Stanford) used to talk about how to win anything, you have to have some great individual performances. We had that tonight. I’ve been involved in very few basketball games in my life where anyone from either team gets over 20 rebounds — but Fardaws has done that four times already (this season). The individual performances allow teams to win.”
UVU improved to 4-0 this season in overtime games.
It marked the first time all season that the Cougars have allowed an opponent to score more than 64 points.
The night began with the news that BYU forward Gideon George would not play Wednesday due to an illness, forcing Pope to make a change in his starting lineup for the first time this season.
Seneca Knight replaced George in the lineup and he ended up with 10 points and seven rebounds. Caleb Lohner had 11 rebounds and Te’Jon Lucas contributed 10 points, eight assists and six turnovers. Johnson scored 15 points on 6 of 10 shooting and he grabbed nine rebounds.
Lohner was 2 of 11 from the floor and Lucas was 4 of 15. Both were 0 of 4 from 3-point range.
“I thought we were anxious the whole night,” Pope said. “(UVU) did a great job being really, really physical with us. It was a physical game and we just didn’t respond very well to it.”
It was a spirited matchup that featured, at one point, UVU fans chanting “Traitor!” at Pope. Later, Pope was whistled for a technical foul.
Midway through the first half, Baxter went down with a non-contact injury and was helped off the court and escorted to the locker room. After the game, Pope told reporters that Baxter had torn “his other ACL.”
Baxter had played in only nine games over the previous two seasons due to injuries and surgeries. He suffered a major shoulder injury prior to the 2019-20 season before returning for the final handful of games, and then he suffered a knee injury in the second game last season.
Entering the week, Baxter was averaging 8.8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 65% from the floor for the Cougars, and in wins over Oregon and Utah, he provided BYU with a major boost in the paint.
The Cougars certainly needed more of Baxter against UVU. But Pope made no excuses.
“It has a huge impact on our team. It didn’t have anything to do with tonight,” he said. “Utah Valley beat us and they earned it. They deserve it. Going forward, it’s what you do during the course of a season. It’s a journey. You take it and you have to get better.”
BYU visits Missouri State Saturday.