BYU Outlasts Utah for Hopeful NCAA Bid

<B>PROVO</B> - It took 22,718 roaring, raving and rapturous fans plus the outstanding play of BYU junior star guard <b>Mike Hall</b> and senior forward <b>Mark Bigelow</b> to finally break the backs of a persistent and pesky Utah squad who bowed to the Cougars in a crucial 70-57 ESPN "Big Monday" night matchup.

The man of the night was former JC All-American Mike Hall, who led all Cougar scorers with 21 points. Bigelow had 19 and Rafael Araujo added 16 in a relatively off-night for BYU's big man. Trailing most of the first half, the Cougars finally tied the Utes on a Hall steal for a lay-up with 6:03 left in the first half. BYU led Utah 26-19 at halftime.

Hall fanned the fervor of Cougar fans throughout the game with timely defensive steals and dunks, winning the adoration of ecstatic BYU fans and the praise and recognition of ESPN announcers who made repeated references to the ear-popping and joyous pandemonium within Marriott Center last night.

It was BYU's seventh consecutive win, including road wins at Colorado State and Wyoming. The win improved BYU to a 19-7 season and 9-4 conference record; a perfect 13-0 home stand this season; an updated and impressive 31 RPI rating; and a likely nod for an at-large nod to the NCAA Tournament – even if the Cougars don't win the MWC tournament next week at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

Utah, now sporting a 20-8 season and 8-5 conference record, must now depend on a strong MWC tournament showing and hopes that its 20-win season and prior track record might be enough to sway selectors for the "Big Dance."

Perhaps as impressive as the win, for outside onlookers nationally, was the fact BYU drew a virtual sell-out crowd of 22,000-plus in the country's third-largest basketball facility for a team that is not even in the Top 25 national rankings – and is just bordering on a NCAA tournament selection.

The Cougars are almost unbeatable at home, having won 61 of the last 62 games in Provo. Utah defeated BYU 79-75 in Provo last year, ending their NCAA home-win streak. The Utes also defeated the Cougars earlier this season 64-56 on their home court, coming from 15-points behind to beat the upset-minded Cougars. Monday night's victory was BYU's first win against Utah since 2002 and the fourth in their last 21 intrastate battles.

The game was much closer and harder-fought than the final score, a 13-point variance, indicated. Utah's Nick Jacobsen started strong, stalled for much of the game, but came on strong at the end to lead all Ute scorers with 16 points.

Eleven minutes in the game, Utah led BYU 17-7, its largest lead of the game, before the Cougars, overcoming a horrendous shooting spell, gamely fought back to take the lead later in the first half and never relinquished it.

The Utah big men combo of Andrew Bogut and Tim Frost were not as big a factor as their coaches hoped. Bogut, the likely MWC Freshman of the Year, exited the game with 10 points and Frost with 11 points.

Despite the fact that Utah won the rebounding battle 36-30, what did them in was a season-high 22 turnovers compared with BYU's seven.

It was the Cougars' tenacious defense that kept them going in the game even when the ball was not falling in early for them. BYU's win earned them the No. 2 seed for next week's MWC tournament behind regular season conference champ Air Force, which easily upended San Diego State at home Monday.

The high-flying Falcons, who won their first MWC title ever with their win last night, boasts a 21-5 season and an 11-2 MWC conference record with one game remaining against Wyoming before the conference tournament begins May 11 in Denver. Meanwhile, both Utah and Cougars also wrap up the regular season on the road Saturday with the Utes playing at San Diego State and the Cougars at UNLV.

© copyright by

Total Blue Sports Top Stories