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‘We want this Huntsman magic back’: How Utah handed No. 14 BYU a historic loss

The Utes shut down a prolific Cougar offense most of the night and set the pace in a rivalry victory

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Utah Utes celebrate their victory over rival BYU during at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Dec. 9, 2023.

Utah Utes celebrate their victory over rival Brigham Young University during a men’s basketball game at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

It had been more than 30 years since the Utah men’s basketball team had beaten BYU when the Cougars entered their rivalry game ranked.

Consider that streak over. Finito. 

For the first time since Feb. 27, 1993, the Runnin’ Utes knocked off a Cougars team ranked in The Associated Press Top 25. This time, Utah beat No. 14 BYU 73-69 on Saturday night at the Huntsman Center.

It came in front of a boisterous sellout crowd (15,468, the fourth-largest in program history) that was about two-thirds Utah fans that made up the first sellout at the Huntsman in six seasons.

“It’s a great win for us. We had a lot of guys step up. Thought we really played a complete game,” Utah head coach Craig Smith said.

What a way to send the longstanding series — Saturday’s game was the 264th between the two schools — from one era to another. Next year, after 13 years of BYU and Utah being part of different conferences, they’ll be reunited in the Big 12.

In a game Utah led by as many as 16 points, the Utes had to overcome a rally attempt that included a final BYU possession that could have tied or won the game.

When Dallin Hall lost control of the ball with five seconds remaining, though, the costly turnover and two ensuing Rollie Worster free throws sealed the Utes win.

There are a couple other important milestones to the victory:

  • Not only did Utah beat BYU for the first time in four tries, the Runnin’ Utes handed the Cougars their first loss of the season.
  • It was Smith’s first win in six tries — he was 0-2 previously against BYU as the Utes coach, and 0-3 as Utah State’s.
  • Utah also beat a BYU team that entered the contest No. 1 in the NET rankings, giving the Runnin’ Utes a crucial piece to their NCAA Tournament resume.

How did Utah snap the streak?

Utah’s defense got BYU out of rhythm

BYU entered the game fourth nationally in scoring offense (91.9 points per game), first in 3-pointers per game (12.9) and 3-point attempts (32.9) and seventh in effective field goal percentage (59%).

The Cougars were held well below those averages Saturday night — well, except in 3-point attempts. 

BYU shot 30 3-pointers, making just seven. 

The Cougars shot 36.6% for the game — roughly the same in each half — in their lowest scoring output of the season.

This came four nights after Utah gave up 86 points to a two-win Southern Utah team in a two-point victory.

Both Smith and players credited assistant coach Chris Burgess for the Utes’ game plan, which limited and often frustrated the BYU offense.

“He did a great job with our game plan and putting our defensive stuff together,” Smith said of Burgess. “Our defense was great. Our guys had a great look to them.”

Utah’s defense played a critical role when the Utes went cold in the second half. During an eight-minute stretch, Utah scored just one point after maintaining a double-digit edge early in the second period.

Even with the Runnin’ Utes missing eight straight field goals during that stretch — which mercifully ended with a Worster layup with 4:55 to play — BYU only managed four baskets during that time frame.

That helped Utah hold the lead for 38:41 of the game, and the entire second half, even when the Cougars had their chances to make it a one-possession game several times.

“We had a pretty good game plan. Shoutout to Coach Burgess,” guard Gabe Madsen said. “He put together a really good scout for us.

“Just believe in that obviously, and there was a point where it felt like they got every offensive rebound, so (it was just) kind of coming together and saying, ‘Hey, we’re getting stops but we need to get those rebounds.’”

Utah rode the emotions of the night — and its leaders — to victory

Utah’s fifth-year senior center, Branden Carlson, was designated a gametime decision heading into the contest after missing the Utes’ previous game against SUU with an undisclosed injury.

Smith, though, said he “felt pretty good” after practice Friday that Carlson, a Bingham High product who’s well-versed in the rivalry, wasn’t going to miss his last chance to beat BYU.

While Utah had beaten the Cougars in his first game in the rivalry, the 7-footer had endured three straight losses to BYU.

Carlson’s impact was felt early and often Saturday, as he finished with 15 points, eight rebounds, two assists and one steal.

“Obviously, the players know, everybody knows how important it was to him. Now you’re going to get me emotional here,” Smith said.

After a quick pause, Smith added, “That guy’s a legendary Ute. … He’s a Runnin’ Ute. This is a big part of why he came back. He played like it tonight. He played like a fifth-year dude. He played like an all-Pac-12 dude. He played like one of the best players in the country.”

Carlson scored his first points on a dunk after a defensive breakdown by BYU left him wide open after an offensive rebound.

After BYU had whittled the Utah lead down to five at 22-17, Carlson had a pair of back-to-back slams that reasserted the Utes’ edge. 

The second came off a sloppy BYU turnover that led to Madsen stealing the ball, then finding a wide-open Carlson in transition for a breakaway dunk and a 26-17 Utah lead.

Carlson’s lone 3-pointer of the night made it 43-29 just before the end of the first half, where Utah took a 45-31 lead into the break.

Carlson, when asked postgame, described the victory as “fantastic.”

“It was a great environment. I want to thank all the Ute fans that came out to this game and brought so much energy that helped to keep us going through tough stretches, so thank you to them. It was a great home win against a great team,” he said.

Madsen, too, was integral to the win. He hit three early 3-pointers to help Utah establish itself early — the last of those three put the Runnin’ Utes ahead 20-10.

His most memorable 3-pointer of the night, though, was a dagger 3-pointer with 1:01 remaining.

That shot put Utah ahead by seven at 71-64, and while there were some mistakes in the final minute that gave BYU a chance, it was the latest clutch shot in a career full of them for the senior shooting guard.

“The guy has been in these battles, and I remember him missing a couple shots early in his career when he was a freshman,” Smith said of Madsen, who finished with 17 points (including five 3-pointers), four rebounds, three assists and a steal. “He’s been through the fire. He’s made some big shots in his career here.”

Regarding that final Madsen 3, Smith said, “He’s pretty lethal with that stepback.”

Both Smith and the players credited the fans with playing a key role.

“Fans impact winning in an elite way, and you could feel their energy all night long. It just willed us during some tough times during the second half. I can’t thank our fans enough for coming out, showing up and showing out the way that they did,” Smith said.

“We want this Huntsman magic back, because this place is an elite home court when he have it packed like that.”

The Utes made critical plays late to close out the win

For all Utah had done right in building a lead it wouldn’t relinquish after taking the lead for good with 17:46 left in the first half, the Utes still had to endure several rallies from a BYU squad that refused to give up so easily on its once-perfect season.

From Worster scoring five of his seven points in the game’s final five minutes (to go with eight assists, six rebounds and two steals) to Keba Keita making several effort plays on both ends to Madsen’s dagger 3, the Utes found ways to wrap up a much-needed rivalry win.

Keita, in particular, made some clutch plays that just continued to build on the hype the 6-foot-8 center has been building early in his sophomore season.

While Utah had just six second-chance points, four of them came from Keita on a pair of putbacks in less than a minute. 

The first happened moments after BYU had cut the Utah lead to 61-59 on a Jaxson Robinson 3-pointer.

The second putback, with 3:32 to play, put Utah back up five after Hall had just made it a three-point game.

Then on BYU’s final possession, Keita drew the defensive assignment on a switch when Hall drove to the hoop. His presence forced a turnover, and Utah celebrated a win.

“Heck of a job by Keba on that switch to Dallin Hall, when Dallin was going hard on a right-hand drive and (the ball) obviously went off his knee,” Smith said.

For seniors like Carlson, it was encouraging to see Keita help deliver a victory over the rivals.

“Keba’s been elite for us the past couple games, and I think his mindset, he’s just in a really good space in his head,” Carlson said. “He knows his role. He knows what he needs to do for us.”

What’s next?

Utah (7-2) stays at home for another in-state game. The Runnin’ Utes will host Utah Valley next Saturday, Dec. 16 (2 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network). It will be Utah’s third of six straight home games at the Huntsman Center to finish out the calendar year.

The Wolverines are coming off a 74-71 loss at Oregon State Saturday. UVU led by as many as 11 points in the first half before the Beavers rallied past their visitors.