By Randall Champion
In a heavyweight bout, both opponents know they are going to take some hard shots, and that the winner will be the one who lands the punch that takes the fight out of his opponent.
Unfortunately for BYU, it was the Utes who landed the knockout blow and walked away from the contest with the number one spot in the conference.
Facing a loud and unfriendly crowd, the Cougars were unable to set into a rhythm and lost the top spot in a tough conference after falling 82-75 to Utah on Saturday, Feb. 24.
Unable to shake its sub par road reputation, BYU fell for the seventh straight time in the Huntsman Center and had its three game winning streak snapped. The Utes meanwhile extended their conference home-unbeaten streak to an NCAA best 45 games.
After a strong start early in the first half, turnovers and missed shots came back to haunt the Cougars. Connecting on 62 percent of their shots, Utah built a 12-point lead late in the first half.
Mekeli Wesley and Terrell Lyday were combined for 11 from the field in the first half, with the stingy Ute defense holding Wesley to zero points at halftime.
Behind 11 points from Kevin Bradley, and nine a piece from Chris Burgess and Britton Johnsen, the Utes took a comfortable 41-34 lead into the break.
Trent Whiting, who returned to the Huntsman Center for the first time since transferring from Utah last season, kept the Cougars alive with 11 first half points.
“It was crazy to be on the other end,” Whiting said. “I wanted to come out strong and get people off my back and hit the big shots.”
After a somewhat passive first half, BYU came out with more intensity and an increased determination to silence the sold-out crowd. The Cougars slowly whittled away the Utah lead, trimming it to just four at 60-56.
With the Utah fans becoming nervous and despite playing tired, it appeared BYU might have just enough energy to overcome the Utes and earn that coveted number one spot.
But a long three pointer by Nick Jacobsen with five minutes remaining served as the punch to the gut of the Cougars, which knocked out any last breath of wind that remained.
But showing why they are one of the top teams, BYU wouldn”t give up. Playing aggressively to the end, the Cougars forced Utah to earn the victory down the stretch.
Though they may have lost this bout with Utah, coach Steve Cleveland knows that his team still has a great deal of fight remaining.
“This conference is not over yet,” Cleveland said. “There”s a very good chance we may meet each other again. This team is not done.”
Whiting finished with 22 points in his return, and Eric Nielsen continued his impressive play against Utah, finishing with 16. Lyday also contributed 14 points and four assists in the defeat.
The Utes finished with four players in double figures, as well as shooting 57 percent from both the field and from three-point land.
Utah now holds the number one spot in the conference, while BYU falls a half game behind Wyoming into third.
As the final two road games of the season loom on the horizon, the Cougars know that the road won”t be easy. But nobody has any intentions of throwing in the towel.
“Having our final two on the road is a difficult task, but someone has to do it,” Cleveland said. “We can”t complain. All we can do is go out and do it.”