No disrespect to an outstanding defensive effort put forth by the Runnin’ Utes, but the BYU Cougars clearly didn’t look like one of the top college basketball teams in the country at the sold-out Huntsman Center on Saturday night, particularly in the first half.
The Cougars fell behind by as many as 16 points, looked rattled and bewildered in the first 22 minutes of game time and seemingly forgot how to play team basketball in suffering their first loss of the 2023-24 season.
“One thing I got is incredibly coachable kids, and they will learn from this. And that is what this season is going to be, guys. It is going to be us learning and growing and getting better. Like I said, I feel more confident than I did before the game that we have a chance to grow into a really good team.” — BYU basketball coach Mark Pope.
But head coach Mark Pope wasn’t all that disconsolate after the hard-fought 73-69 loss to a bitter rival that improved to 7-2 and is looking more and more like an NCAA Tournament team in Utes coach Craig Smith’s third season.
“I probably have a little more confidence than ever that we have a chance to grow into a really good team,” Pope said, “so I am excited about that.”
He called it a “terrific win” for Utah, and the evaluation tools and rankings metrics agreed. The Utes, who beat Southern Utah 88-86 without superstar center Branden Carlson on Tuesday, are obviously a different team with the 7-footer in the lineup.
They jumped from No. 49 to No. 32 in the NET rankings.
And it certainly wasn’t a damaging loss for BYU, aside from having its three-game winning streak over the Utes snapped and its pride nicked. The slightly favored Cougars dropped from No. 1 to No. 3 in the NET and from No. 6 to No. 8 in KenPom.com.
While the Utes celebrated on the Huntsman Center floor as if they’d just made the Final Four and the fourth-largest crowd in arena history (15,648) filed out, Pope and senior forward Spencer Johnson were already talking about how the setback and experience of playing in front of a mostly hostile crowd could serve the Cougars well in the long run.
“The really nice thing for us here is we are going to be in this environment 20 times the rest of the season,” Pope said, “so I am proud of the way the guys responded.
“We just came up a little short. We just weren’t quite good enough at being us the whole night.”
Said Johnson, who had a career-high 11 rebounds: “We had a really solid game plan coming in and we just kinda got sidetracked. That’s something we can take forward, is to just stay focused through the whole thing.”
The Cougars (8-1) won’t venture out on the road again until Jan. 9 at Baylor, and they could be 13-1 if they take care of business at home against Denver, Georgia State, Bellarmine, Wyoming and in their Big 12 opener against Cincinnati (7-1) on Jan. 6.
Speaking of the Bearcats, they also lost for the first time Saturday night, falling 84-79 to crosstown rival Xavier, so the Cougars weren’t alone in the Big 12 in suffering a heartbreaking loss to a heated rival.
“Listen, one thing I got is incredibly coachable kids, and they will learn from this,” Pope said, “and that is what this season is going to be, guys. It is going to be us learning and growing and getting better.
“Like I said, I feel more confident than I did before the game that we have a chance to grow into a really good team.”
In the second half, despite playing without arguably their best player — post Fousseyni Traore (hamstring issues) — the Cougars did look like a quality team. They outscored the Utes 38-28, had just three turnovers and outrebounded the much-taller Utes, 28-19.
They put the ball in the hands of sophomore guard Dallin Hall down two with nine seconds left, but the former Fremont High star who made two game-winning shots last year wasn’t able to deliver in the clutch again.
Richie Saunders was alone in the corner opposite Hall’s drive, but Hall didn’t have a chance as Utah’s Keba Keita closed in.
Some wondered why leading scorer Jaxson Robinson didn’t have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, but Pope seemed OK with the way the play started.
He also said the Cougars aren’t built to have a go-to guy, like the Utes do in Carlson and Gabe Madsen (17 points on 6 of 11 shooting).
“Yeah, I think we have a bunch of guys that we can go to, actually. I think we do, but this is going to be an ‘us’ deal all year long, guys,” Pope said. “We are in a league that has three NBA lottery picks on every single team, it seems like.
“The way we are going to have a chance to win is as us. That is the most important thing. We are great with us. We are great with go-to guys that are playmakers. We are great with guys that can finish plays. We are not going to be a team that is like, ‘Hey, let’s put it in his hands and let him go to work.’
“That’s not us right now. That is not how we are going to excel right now. One of the reasons we fell a little bit short tonight was because we spent too much time thinking that somebody could be the guy to go do it.”
Cougars on the air
Denver (6-4) at No. 14 BYU (8-1)
Wednesday, 7 p.m. MST
Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM