Rivalry building after 3 years of BYU wins

By Christopher Kamrani, Asst. Sports Editor

It was Feb. 8, 2006.

The last time the Runnin’ Utes tasted the zing of victory against rival BYU.

“I can’t put into words how it feels, but I’ll remember this one for a long time,” former Utah guard Chris Grant said after Utah’s 79-60 triumph.

It’s been nearly three years. For a storied program such as Utah’s, three years is too long.

As the 14-4 Cougars invade the Huntsman Center tonight, both BYU and the 12-7 Utes are on an even keel.

In the ever-expanding wave of talent that the Mountain West Conference boasts, men’s basketball has been a revelation this season. There are seven, count ’em, seven teams capable of winning the MWC this season as we near the half point of league play.

Smack dab in the middle of the cluster sits Utah and BYU. Both at 3-2. Both all knotted up for second place in the conference, alongside New Mexico and San Diego State.

BYU has been one of the more impressive teams of the season in college basketball, while the Utes have been an enigma8212;beating Oregon, LSU and No. 24 Gonzaga while losing to Southwest Baptist and Idaho State.

Now 19 games into the 29-game schedule, the Utes, whether they admit it or not, are facing their first “must-win” of the season tonight.

Sure, the record can speak for itself, and the Utes are in the thick of things.

Yes, Utah’s two losses in conference have come on the road to two of the top-tier MWC teams.

No, there is no bigger game on the schedule than this one.

“The guys are focused and a little on edge,” said head coach Jim Boylen after yesterday’s practice. “I like that.”

This isn’t 12-0 vs. 11-1, but it’s pretty damn close8212;for more than a handful of reasons.

BYU is the best team in the MWC this season. The Cougars played tough against No. 4 Wake Forest and No. 14 Arizona State, and despite two losses to New Mexico and SDSU, the Cougars are pressing forward without a legitimate big man.

The fire has been fueled by the likes of Jonathan Tavernari and Lee Cummard, who gave the MUSS a few parting shots after last year’s loss in the Huntsman Center.

Boylen has yet to beat that school to the south. After a close 55-52 loss in the Huntsman Center, coupled with the disheartening 67-59 loss in Provo, Boylen’s happy-go-lucky mood hit a brick wall. It was the one and only time I have seen the now second-year head coach snap at the media.

“I didn’t get into this business, so one game doesn’t mean as much as the other, I mean, shit,” Boylen grumbled after the loss. “We played our asses off.”

They did. Utah was charged with 25 fouls to BYU’s 13. The Utes shot 10 free throws compared to BYU’s 32.

But as Boylen does best, he moves on. He has a switch in his mind that goes from irate straight to nonchalant.

Utah’s season, which has been successful, eye-popping (cough, Carlon Brown) and at times irritating, hinges on tonight.

Luke Nevill, Shaun Green and Lawrence Borha are the only remaining Utes who were on the 2006 squad that last beat the Cougars. Three years later, obvious hunger still bubbles in the stomachs of these three seniors.

“The seniors on this team definitely have a sour taste in our mouth about that,” Green said. “We definitely want to come out and play better this year.”

Boylen was much more blunt and to the point.

“It’s as good as any rivalry I’ve ever been around,” Boylen said. “If it doesn’t mean something to you, you shouldn’t be here.”

It’s been nearly three years, and after going 0-2 in his rookie year, Boylen and the Runnin’ Utes need a jumping off point for the rest of the year.

Playing a rabid 40 minutes against a hated rival should do.

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Chris Kamrani