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Mark Pope gets beefy in win over Utes

BYU head coach Mark Pope talks to his team during its game against Utah on Dec. 12, 2020 at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah.
Courtesy BYU Photo

PROVO — Mark Pope found plenty of answers this time.

It was beefy. It was effective. It was hard-hat work in the trenches and kickouts to shooters. It was more of what Pope wants in his 2020 campaign than what was seen on Wednesday night.

Days after his BYU team looked offensively impotent the first 20 minutes in a home loss to Boise State and a year after Utah pushed the Cougars around in Salt Lake City, Richard Harward, Spencer Johnson and Connor Harding stepped up and delivered Pope a much-needed, long sought-after triple punch in Saturday’s 82-64 win over the Utes.

Boise State and USC both had length that really bugged the Cougars in a pair of losses. With the Cougars holding a height matchup advantage over the Utes, Pope pulled the string, somehow organizing a far more efficient inside attack than he could get midweek against Boise State.

It was an impressive metamorphosis.

Harding (17 points) and Harward (15) both had career nights. Harward made all seven of his shots. Johnson added 16 with a team-high four 3-pointers.

Harward, at 6-10 and 250 pounds, was nearly unstoppable inside the paint against the Ute defense. He twirled, he pivoted, he spun around and regularly rolled in close-range field goals, making his first six shots.

A year ago in Salt Lake City, Yoeli Childs cramped up during crunch time and the Cougars struggled to get easy baskets from short range. BYU’s super star shooters at the time, TJ Haws and Jake Toolson, could not keep up with Ute point guard Rylan Jones and Timmy Allen. They cut the Cougars up inside and out with a combined 52 points.

But this time Pope, with a far less experienced and proven lineup, answered early, then answered a Utah flurry just after halftime. Allen and Jones finished with 16 points on a combined five field goals.

Harding, who has struggled to find his range and role in Pope’s new lineups, really hurt Utah in the first half with a combination of drives and 3-point goals. Then the Cougars got a huge lift from Johnson, who added 16 points and had a team-high four from distance.

Harward said the scouting report on Utah showed that Utah’s post players were more slender, skinny and more shooting oriented than Boise State.

“We’ve got three different kinds of bigs. We have Matt Haarms who is like a giant person with amazing reach and a great touch, Kolby Lee who is just a great shooter, and I’m kind of a bruiser in the post. Coach put us in depending on the matchup to do what we needed. As far as the offense, coach put a great emphasis on ducking in and out, working inside out, where against Boise State we felt like we were getting stuck on one side of the court. In this game we really focused on getting to second and third side.”

BYU outrebounded Utah 44 to 28, using its beefy lineup to control the boards. Defensively, BYU outrebounded Utah 36-17.

For the Utes, the biggest moments were just after halftime when Jones, Allen and Alfonso Plummer got hot during a 7-0 run. But BYU answered and diluted Plummer’s game-high 19 with inside domination that elevated BYU’s shooting percentage to a 55% to 36% advantage at the end.

Caleb Lohner, the center of attention of sorts for signing with Utah out of Wasatch Academy then gaining a release to enroll at BYU last spring, grabbed 10 rebounds in 22 minutes of play. He scored eight points, all helping to keep BYU’s momentum going coming off the bench.

This was an interesting matchup considering Utah’s win in the Huntsman Center a year ago and returning more than 90% of the scorers in that game.

The Cougars using Johnson and Harward, neither of which had played in last year’s game, proved huge.

Interesting to note, BYU’s leading scorer on the season, Alex Barcello, scored just one field goal in the first half as BYU built up a double-digit lead. He became facilitator and made Jones spend a lot of energy guarding him, which likely impacted Jones’ offensive production.

Barcello took only four shots and scored five points, but he had eight assists.

On this Saturday, Pope tossed in the beef and asked them to graze.

And they did.