PROVO — When caught in the heat of the battle, instincts kick in.
Unfortunately for the Utah State Aggies, and fortunately for the No. 23 BYU Cougars, the instinct Aggies forward Tai Wesley had when surrounded by defenders late in Wednesday's hard-fought in-state hoops rivalry was the final momentum boost in BYU's 78-72 win.
With the Cougars clinging to a 3-point lead with just over two minutes to play, Wesley rebounded a missed BYU shot but was quickly engulfed by Cougars before he could throw the ball down court. In an attempt to shake the crowd of Cougars around him, Wesley lifted his arms up and swung the ball back and forth.
The officials quickly whistled Wesley, who led the Aggies with 19 points, for his fifth foul. After a video review of the play, they ruled the foul was flagrant — according to a new college rule that says throwing of the elbows, whether contact is made or not, is a flagrant foul.
Cougar forward Chris Collinsworth sank both resulting free throws, and the Cougars, who trailed 69-68 two minutes earlier, were suddenly ahead 74-70. The Aggies got no closer than three again.
"I think it was a real game-changer for us ... I think that really put the momentum on our side," said BYU forward Noah Hartsock, who scored 15.
Both Wesley and Utah State coach Stew Morrill say they were familiar with the rule. In fact, they're reminded of it during every pregame captains meeting. The call just came at a bad time for Utah State, and ended a possession in which the Aggies could have tied the game with only a few possessions remaining, and sent their leading scorer to the bench.
"I was trying to protect the ball," Wesley said. "It's instinct. They were kind of swiping at it ... and when you get caught in the heat of battle you turn to your instincts."
Even though the call seemed to turn things permanently in BYU's favor, the Cougars prevailed for other reasons. And the Aggies lost for other reasons.
Utah State missed several critical free throws (15 of 26 for the game) in the final 10 minutes. The Cougars, on the other hand, made free throws down the stretch and scored following offensive rebounds on several key late possessions.
"It's good to have to go to the free throw line late in games, make free throws, get offensive and defensive rebounds late, get a stop here and there when there's a lot of pressure and a lot on the line," BYU coach Dave Rose said.
The Cougars led by eight at 15-7 after a 3-pointer by Jimmer Fredette, part of Fredette's 12-point tear to open the game. But the Aggies, with Brian Green (17 points) coming off the bench to drill three straight 3-pointers, went into halftime tied with BYU 33-33.
Jackson Emery, who sat most of the first half with three early fouls, erupted early in the second half for eight quick points to push the Cougars back in front by eight at 52-44. But the Aggies, in similar fashion to the way they played the entire game, battled back to score nine straight to lead 53-52.
Rose praised how Utah State was able to control the tempo and get good looks inside the paint, and swing the ball to get good looks outside as well..
"They knew where they wanted to go when we got a little run on them," he said.
However, the Aggies missed two critical 3-point shots down the stretch. Leading 69-68, Brockeith Pane missed an open three that could have given Utah State a four-point lead. To compound the miss, BYU's Charles Abouo was fouled on the rebound, and made both free throws to put the Cougars up for good.
Fredette, seconds later, split two defenders up top and tossed a runner in the paint over two Aggie defenders that trickled in, giving BYU a 72-69 lead.
"I've made a lot of shots like that before, when I just get into the lane and throw it up over the big guys and put some English on it and get it in," said Fredette, who scored a game-high 26. "I knew our team needed a big play and I was able to make that shot, get us up a little bit and continue the momentum.
The final back-breaker came one possession after Wesley's flagrant foul when Green missed his only shot of the game, and Fredette then missed a baseline jumper, but Hartsock was fouled on a put-back attempt and sank both free throws.
"I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, to grab, tip them or save them in. But those are the kind of plays that win games, the hustle plays. And that's what I try to do," Hartsock said.
The Aggies never recovered.
"We gave ourselves a chance to win and that makes this a really tough game to lose," Morrill said.
Wesley added, "It's basketball. There's a winner and a loser. It's frustrating, but we have a whole season to play and this isn't going to make or break our season."
For the Cougars, however, it was an important win as they still work to find team chemistry with two new starters in the lineup and several new reserves.
"Tonight we took a big step forward, I thought," Rose said.
GAME NOTES: Freshman guard Anson Winder did not dress, an indication that he's likely going to redshirt this season. ... Sophomore center Brandon Davies played only one minute late in the first half. Rose said Davies' minimal role was a game-plan decision made early in the week. ... On whether BYU runs the risk of being called for a flagrant foul similar to the one called on Wesley, Hartsock responded "we don't have any elbow-slingers on our team." ... Attendance at the Marriott Center was 17,303.