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Why it will feel like Old Home Night when BYU, Utah Valley hit Marriott Center hardwoods

The Cougars are enjoying the impact of former Wolverines — Brandon Averette, Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell — while a pair of former Cougars are now playing for Utah Valley

BYU newcomer Gideon George goes up for two during game against New Orleans in the Mariott Center Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020.
Courtesy BYU Photo

Four years ago, almost to the day, Mark Pope’s Utah Valley University squad produced a shocking 114-101 upset of BYU at the Marriott Center in what is considered the biggest win in UVU history.

The Wolverines were led that night by a former Cougar, Isaac Neilson, and Conner Toolson, whose father, Andy, is a former BYU star.

Now, of course, Pope is BYU’s coach after being hired in 2019. The Cougars (2-0) host coach Mark Madsen’s Wolverines Saturday (7 p.m., MST, BYUtv).

It will be the first time Pope has faced his old team.

“It’s going to be a battle. Every single one of these in-state games is — that’s why they’re great,” he said. “It’s going to be an all-out battle. We’re really excited about it.”

There are plenty of other connections between the two programs, which are separated by just four miles. The players and coaches on both staffs are very familiar with the opposite side.

BYU boasts Brandon Averette, Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell, who previously played at UVU and have made an immediate impact.

On the other hand, Wolverine guards Blaze Nield and Colby Leifson used to play for the Cougars.

Averette played for UVU (1-0) last season before becoming a grad transfer and joining BYU. Harward and Lowell redshirted last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

“I’m excited to see some of those (UVU) guys again,” said Harward, who came off the bench to record a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds in Thursday’s 86-61 win over New Orleans.

Averette has scored 26 points, and made six 3-pointers, in BYU’s two victories.

Meanwhile, Lowell played in BYU’s season-opening victory over Westminster despite suffering a serious shoulder injury last summer.

“I’m actually so shocked,” Pope said of Lowell seeing action in the opener, noting that it was four months and three days after Lowell underwent surgery. “And he actually played live in a game and felt great.”

Lowell scored five points and grabbed three rebounds in 10 minutes of play.

Pope credited the doctors, assistant director of sports medicine Rob Ramos, strength and conditioning coach Erick Schork, and assistant coach Nick Robinson for their roles in helping Lowell return to playing shape.

“Obviously, a lot of credit goes to Wyatt also,” Pope said. “He’s worked incredibly hard.”

Pope explained that he had Robinson oversee Lowell’s comeback. He recalled telling his assistant coaches, “‘If this Wyatt Lowell, if his feet aren’t great and if he’s not in unbelievable condition by the time his shoulder is ready for live play, I’m going to kill everybody on the staff.’ Coach Robinson took it upon himself to make that happen. He clearly did an incredible job that Wyatt was even on the court, much less he played well. You can see what kind of length and potential he has. We’re really excited about him.”

Meanwhile, BYU is dealing with other injuries early this season.

Matt Haarms, the Cougars’ 7-foot-3 grad transfer from Purdue, missed the first two games due to an ankle injury. He was scheduled to practice Friday and could make his BYU debut Saturday.

Then in the first half of Thursday’s game, starting forward Gavin Baxter injured his knee and did not return. Pope said Baxter was scheduled to undergo an MRI and doctors would determine his status.

Fortunately for the Cougars, they have plenty of depth, which showed again Thanksgiving night. Guard Connor Harding stuffed the stat sheet like a turkey with 12 points, four rebounds and two assists and two steals.

Alex Barcello scored a game-high 19 points and added seven rebounds while Kolby Lee added 12 points and four rebounds and freshman Caleb Lohner recorded six points and nine rebounds before fouling out.

UVU’s original season opener, scheduled at Stanford Wednesday, was canceled due to COVID-19 issues. The Wolverines opened their season Thursday with a convincing 100-75 victory over Adams State. Fardaws Aimaq scored 24 points and pulled down 18 rebounds in his UVU debut, while Trey Woodbury and Jamison Overton each scored 22 points, both career-highs.

“They’re really good. Mark’s done an unbelievable job,” Pope said of UVU. “They had a solid year last year. They’re going to have a really good year this year. They’ve got a lot of length in the backcourt.”