Saturday December 14, 2013 is a date that Utah Utes basketball fans will remember for a long time. At the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City was a redemption song sung by over 13,000 fans clad in red, waiting for something, anything to cheer about. They got it as they watched their Utah Utes avenge seven straight losses to BYU with an 81-64 win.
You see, it had been seven long games since the 9-1 Utes defeated rival BYU, spanning four, almost five years of heartache -- and last year's heartbreaking 61-58 loss in Provo was apparently too much for some Ute fans to handle this time, for they stayed home instead of going up the hill to the arena.
What a mistake they made, because had they went to the Huntsman Center on this historic night they would have found that a legion of fans led by a throaty MUSS (Mighty Utah Student Section) would have had their backs.
“I got choked up," head coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the game. "It was powerful. That student section was something I've daydreamed about since seeing some of our football crowds. They're the heartbeat. Everyone who shows up. When you have a crowd like that it gives you something. I just want to thank everyone and if you liked the product, we welcome you back.”
The Utes controlled this game from the outset, attacking BYU's 2-3 zone throughout, finding gaps much in the same manner that Utah used to outlast North Carolina in a 1998 National Semifinal win -- a game that aired on the Pac-12 Networks immediately following this game.
How ironic then, that in this game the Utes showed against BYU they were clearly the better team -- much as was the case 15 years ago on that magical night in San Antonio.
Though these Utes have many hurdles to climb to get to the level of those 1998 national runners-up it had to have been at least somewhat heartening that Utah is indeed good again.
Utah sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge was expected to give Cougars bigs some fits -- and so he wasted no time getting going. He scored five of the Utes first seven points -- and had 15 by halftime, cooling down in the second half to finish with 21 points, 6 assists and five rebounds.
“It was a great lift to get Jordan going right from the jump," Krystkowiak said. "These Salt Lake kids, it means a lot to them. (Guard) Parker Van Dyke stepped up and hit two 3's. Then Jordan, he beats me into work most days and he's shooting with his dad. I'm so happy for him because of the work he's put in when no one is looking. He was such a catalyst for us this evening.”
Yet Loveridge, the former West Jordan High star, isn't even listed as the team's point guard. That guy, NBA draft prospect Delon Wright quietly had a nice game, scoring 16 points, with seven assists and six rebounds -- while backup center Dallin Bachynski filled in admirably for Renan Lenz who had a cold night.
BYU simply couldn't do much on offense. Down 13 at the break the Cougars tried getting back into the game -- but the Utes extended their halftime lead and cruised to an easy victory -- even causing BYU center Eric Mika to get ejected from the game. The freshman was called for a "Flagrant-2" foul and tossed with a few minutes remaining for his actions on Utah center Dallin Bachynski. Mika was the Cougars lone bright spot Saturday night -- as before his ejection he had 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Here are a few reasons Utah manhandled the Cougars.
Jordan Loveridge was a beast
Loveridge's numbers are up significantly from last season but that's partly because he has more help around him -- which frees him up for better looks. I'm sure Loveridge is happy to have Delon Wright around to shoulder some of the burden that he has had to carry and Saturday's game proved as much. The West Jordan product was a monster inside as well as out.
Loveridge was like a larger version of Andre Miller on Saturday slashing inside for baskets, then flashed outside the arc, and around BYU's 2-3 zone for three point shots. His versatile inside-outside play was a key reason Utah didn't give its rival a chance to get back into the game.
Loveridge simply wouldn't allow it to happen. In fact, he scored 15 of the Utes first 18 points and by the time other Utes got involved midway through the first half -- the game was all but over.
Delon Wright was a playmaker
The City College of San Francisco product is making everyone around him better. Wright may be one of the best point guards the Utes have ever had -- even though he is technically a wing. His abllity to get other players involved is his core strength.
Sound familiar? Well, it should; the last time the Utes had a guard capable of filling up a stat sheet like Wright was when a guy by the name of Andre Miller was walking around campus. You all know what happened next -- because Miller is still in the NBA after all these years.
For Wright, a junior college transfer, his time at Utah may be brief as he only has two years of eligibility left -- and there is talk he may declare for this year's NBA Draft. But, one thing is certain: you can expect more heroics from this guy even if he's only a Ute for one year. With a 16-point-per-game average, the best from Wright is probably yet to come as the Utes enter Pac-12 conference play.
Dallin Bachynski dominated inside
Look all you want at what BYU center Eric Mika did to Utah as a key indicator the freshman will be special some day but the fact remains: Mika could have been lots more lethal -- were it not for Utah center Dallin Bachynski manhandling Mika to the point of having the freshman tossed from this game.
The Flagrant-2 Mika received was nothing more than a frustration foul on Bachynski as the Ute drove to the rim, one that Ute fans will clearly remember happening more than once with North Carolina players during the Utes' 1998 national semifinal win.
When you dominate a team -- and a player -- like the Utes did Saturday night, these frustration fouls become more commonplace and are a direct byproduct of good coaching. Bachynski played like Ute legend Mike Doleac at times -- though he has a long way to go to be like Mike.
In being just enough of an annoyance to Mika -- BYU's only inside threat -- Bachynski's physicality wore down the freshman physically and mentally. Bachynski had 11 points and eight rebounds, a season-high.
"Dallin was big for us tonight," Krystkowiak said. "He was the one guy battling down there and bringing energy when we sent four back on defense. He was able to get some big rebounds.”
BYU is a very good team
The fact is, Utah beat a very good BYU team. These Cougars beat Texas, lost in overtime to a very athletic Iowa State squad, ran all over Utah State -- and then went toe-to-toe with No. 10 Wichita State in what was essentially a home game for the Shockers (played at Sprint Center in Kansas City) and were still in that game late before losing 75-62.
Then, two weeks later BYU found itself in Springfield, Massachusetts for another supposed neutral-court game -- which it wasn't -- as the Cougars lost by nine points to UMass.
Now let this sink in: The Cougars lost to two nationally ranked teams by 13 and 9 -- and the Utes, a team that is neither nationally ranked nor regarded as highly as either Wichita or UMass, pummeled BYU by 17 points.
BYU came into the game averaging 90 points per outing. Those are almost NBA-type numbers. Against the Utes, the Cougars not only barely got over the 60-point mark, they shot 26 percent from three-point land and a paltry 32 percent from the field. BYU also shot just 55 percent from the free throw line.
What the Utes did Saturday was do more than win a game: they signaled a rebirth at the Huntsman Center. Under Coach K, the Utes played more like they did under the late great Rick Majerus than at any point in the past 10 years.
Utah fans have been waiting for over a decade to return to the Huntsman Center in full throat, yelling at opponents -- particularly rivals like BYU -- even if the words aren't as kind as they might be in Provo.
The Utes, like Majerus' old crews, are a workmanlike team that is versatile at both ends of the court and capable of sharing the wealth -- though very infantile compared to Rick's best squads. By the end of the season you might see this team win over 20 games.
As this season nears the midpoint -- and the end of the preseason schedule -- the sudden upswing of momentum and energy is good news that might result in a berth at the NCAA Tournament, and not the NIT like many expect.