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Analysis: Utah forces No. 14 BYU to play outside itself, ruins Cougars’ perfect season with upset win

Cougars have their worst shooting night of the season, going 7 of 30 from deep, and suffer their first loss

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BYU Cougars guard Richie Saunders (15) shoots the ball over Utah Utes center Lawson Lovering (34) during a game in Salt Lake City on Dec. 9, 2023.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Richie Saunders (15) shoots the ball over Utah Utes center Lawson Lovering (34) 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

Sans the 5,000 or more BYU fans in attendance, the Cougars got a taste of what Big 12 play will be like next month when they ventured into Utah’s sold-out Huntsman Center on Saturday night.

And the underdog Utes were happy to dish out a big helping of revenge.

“I mean, it hurts for sure. They are a really good team. It definitely hurts, but super encouraged for us with the fact that we didn’t shoot very well and were still in it.” — BYU guard Spencer Johnson.

Taking advantage of No. 14 BYU’s worst shooting night of the season, the Utes got a huge 3-pointer with a minute left from Gabe Madsen and held off the visitors’ ferocious second-half comeback to log a 73-69 rivalry win in the last time these longtime foes will square off in a non-conference clash for the foreseeable future.

“I mean, it hurts for sure,” said BYU guard Spencer Johnson. “They are a really good team. It definitely hurts, but super encouraged for us with the fact that we didn’t shoot very well and were still in it.”

From a BYU (8-1) perspective, poor shooting will be fingered as the biggest reason why the Cougars lost, while the Utes will and did focus on the fact that their defense was pretty darn good, too.

BYU shot 37% from the field and 23% from 3-point range, and let’s face it: A lot of those misses came on inside shots when the Cougars appeared rattled by Utah’s superior height, and a lot of the 3-point misses came when guys were wide open.

“There were stretches where we really felt like us as a team, where the ball was popping around and we were like, ‘This feels really good,’” Johnson said. “And there were stretches where the ball got sticky or we just didn’t feel like us offensively, so probably that.”

The Cougars were also a frosty 10 of 18 from the free-throw line, missing the front end of two crucial bonus opportunities. Hard to win a rivalry game shooting that way. For as good as Utah’s defense was, it couldn’t defend the free-throw line.

Didn’t have to.

But for all the Cougars’ problems in this one, there were plenty of positives, such as the way they rallied back from a 45-31 halftime deficit and a 17-point deficit early in the second half.

They could never quite get over the hump, but suffice it to say the pro-Utah crowd (just barely) was giving off a lot of nervous energy. 

Madsen’s 3-pointer, his fifth on nine attempts, gave the Utes a 71-64 lead with 1:01 left. BYU climbed back with a 3 by Richie Saunders and 2 of 3 free throws by Aly Khalifa, and then got the ball back with 9.9 seconds left when Branden Carlson (15 points, eight rebounds) missed everything on a 3-point attempt to beat the shot clock.

But after a timeout, Dallin Hall lost the ball driving on Keba Keita, and that was that.

“I wanted to have a go game and then a wraparound on the weak side,” BYU coach Mark Pope said of the fateful final play.

“Aly did a great job getting a catch. Dallin did a nice job coming open free and then he just lost the handle. We tried to look for him to come downhill, but also get to two feet and then we had some curl stuff on the back end of it.”

It didn’t work, and Rollie Worster hit a pair of free throws with 1.8 seconds left to ice it and help Utah snap its three-game losing streak in the rivalry.

Really, the game was lost in the first half for the Cougars, but Hall’s miscue, or Keita’s defense, won’t soon be forgotten in rivalry lore.

“Congratulations to Utah. They played tough and with a ton of intensity. It is a terrific win for them,” Pope said. “I am proud of my guys. In the parts of the game where we could kinda find the space to be us, we were really good.

I probably have a lot more confidence than ever that we have a chance to grow into a really good team, so I am excited about that.”

Pope was also happy that BYU had just eight turnovers and grabbed 17 offensive rebounds — good for 20 second-chance points — against the much taller Utes who are among the nation’s leaders in defensive rebounding.

He reiterated that the Cougars simply played outside themselves, especially in the first half when Utah got six uncontested dunks and a half-dozen or more layups.

“That is what the emotion of the game sometimes does. Sometimes it pulls you somewhere that is not you. It is very fixable,” Pope said.

“Our guys want to fix it. … Just not enough discipline. First half transition defense really hurt. Second half, high ball screen defense hurt us for a bit.”

Jaxson Robinson led the Cougars with 17 points off the bench in 27 minutes. Saunders added 13 and Hall 11.

Starter Noah Waterman suffered his worst game as a Cougar, going 0 for 7 from the field and 0 for 6 from the 3-point line.

“The second half offensively we were a little bipolar with all of our trail stuff. We were kinda picking them apart (at times),” Pope said. “And then we got stubborn because we wanted it so bad. It just wasn’t us. It is not how we play, so we ended up losing the game.”

In the early going, the Cougars looked shell-shocked from almost the opening tip, a function of not having played in front of a hostile crowd until nine games into the season.

The first sign was Hall missing a bunny underneath on BYU’s first possession. Johnson hit a 3-pointer the next time down the floor to give the Cougars a 3-2 lead, but that was as good as it got for the visitors until late in the game.

Johnson, who had 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, admitted that the Cougars had too many missteps in the first half and it ended up costing them in the second 20 minutes.

“I mean, I think we were a little nervous about, ‘Hey, this is a rivalry game,’ and we had so much emotion that it spilled into the wrong areas of the game,” Johnson said. “We had a really solid game plan coming in and we just kinda got sidetracked. That’s something we can take forward, is to just stay focused through the whole thing.”

Especially those final nine seconds.