A Game for the Ages

It's being billed as the biggest conference game in Mountain West Conference history. Saturday's showdown on the hardwood between the BYU Cougars and the New Mexico Lobos holds a great deal of significance and intrigue for the two teams and their fanbases, as well as those that follow MWC basketball or college basketball in general.

This game pretty much has it all.

A battle between two ranked teams with great records? Check. BYU is ranked No. 13/11, while New Mexico is ranked No. 10/12. No game in MWC history has featured a pair of league teams with such high rankings. Meanwhile, both teams have an identical 26-3 record and are in the midst of setting various school and conference records for wins. UNM is coming in with an 11-game winning streak, and BYU is putting its 21-game home winning streak on the line.

Conference title implications? Check. The winner of this game will take a hold of first place and will control its own destiny.

National implications? Check. The winner will advance in the national rankings and will likely have the inside shot at a better seeding in the NCAA Tournament, possibly a No. 3 seed. Also, the winner will likely be perceived as the best team in the West, which could be crucial not just for receiving the best seed, but the best region to play in. Of course, what happens in the upcoming MWC Tournament will also play a role in deciding all of this.

Add to all that the fact that it's BYU's Senior Night and home finale, it's a revenge game for the Cougars, and that the Marriott Center is sold out, and you have the makings of a huge game that some are saying is the conference's biggest ever.

"Well, it's a big game, and how big of a game it really is, I'll just let other people decide," said Coach Rose. "It's two really good teams. You'll have a hard time finding a matchup this Saturday with two teams that have 52 wins, so that's pretty impressive in and of itself."

Jonathan Tavernari, one of the Cougar seniors that will be honored Saturday in his final game at the Marriott Center, said it is probably the biggest game of his career.

"We're gonna have to play hard, but that's what you want," stated Tavernari, who said he expects Saturday to be fun and wild. "You want to welcome more challenges and trials and just want to do what you can do so we can win the game on Saturday."

One of the reasons Tavernari said it's such a big game is because it's an opportunity to all but clinch a fourth consecutive MWC title for the Cougars. Still, BYU will have two remaining games after Saturday, both of which are on the road. The Cougars will face rival Utah next Wednesday, and then TCU on the following Saturday. That isn't lost on Coach Rose, despite all the hype that Saturday's battle is generating.

"It's a big game, but it's a long ways from being over," Rose said. "I think that the most important thing about Saturday's game going into the last week of the season is the winner of that game's gonna be in the driver's seat, and that's a good place to be. But it doesn't guarantee anything and we have two more games after that and New Mexico's got one game, but you have a leg up going into the final week, which is a good thing."

Fans are gearing up for Saturday's game, as evidenced not only by the fact that it is sold out, but by the tents lined up outside the Marriott Center. Much as they have done for BYU's biggest home games in recent years, students are braving the cold and camping in line to make sure they get the best seats in the student section.

"These guys deserve it," Rose said about his team receiving so much interest and support from the fans. "This is a really special team. These guys have played really well, and I'm just happy that there's a group of students that want to be the first ones in."

As for the Lobos, they pose a number of challenges for the Cougars.

"New Mexico is a really talented team with a lot of diversity in how they play," said Rose. "They have a lot of players that can make winning plays, and that's how you put long streaks together, is that you can't rely on the same guy every night. They've got a real diverse group that can make all kinds of winning plays and that's what we need to be ready for."

Lobo point guard Dairese Gary had a career-high 25 points when the Lobos beat BYU 76-72 in The Pit back on January 27. Rose complimented Gary's strength, distribution of the ball, and ability to score at crucial times, often from the free-throw line.

Meanwhile, Darington Hobson is Jimmer Fredette's main competitor for MWC Player of the Year. He leads the Lobos in points, assists and rebounds per game.

UNM's lone senior, Roman Martinez, is second on the team in points and rebounds per game and has been a big factor in the Lobos' success this season.

Despite all that is on the line, the Cougars aren't shrinking from the enormity of the game, but are rather embracing it.

"This is why we do this," said Rose. "This is what you want these games to be."

"It's gonna be loud, it's gonna be emotional, it's gonna be hot," said Tavernari.

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