Okay, let's go ahead and address the elephant in the room right up front in this article. Utah Valley University (UVU) made national headlines late this week for an unprecedented brawl, in which fans of their basketball team got into altercations with players from visiting New Mexico State.
A small number of New Mexico State players and UVU fans alike did the unacceptable by brawling with each other, crossing a line that cannot be crossed in sports. The ugly incident has served as a flash-point for debate about the acceptability of fans storming the court in college basketball.
Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the brawl is the fact that UVU just got the biggest win in school history, in any sport. The game should have made national news, but not for the negative reasons that it did.
The positives of this game for UVU far outweigh the negatives, but unfortunately most people aren't taking notice of that.
If you want to focus on the brawl, focus on the fact that—despite NMSU player K.C Ross-Miller chucking the basketball at UVU's Holton Hunsaker as time expired—not a single UVU player let that provoke them. That's a sign of terrific coaching by head coach Dick Hunsaker, and speaks volumes about the character of the UVU players.
Most importantly, this game could very well be a defining moment in UVU history. To understand why, it's necessary to provide some background on not only the school's basketball team, but on the school as a whole.
UVU hasn't been a university for very long. It was a junior college known as Utah Valley State College, only becoming a university in 2008. Enrollment has skyrocketed, thanks to an open-enrollment policy, but brand recognition and school pride remain minimal.
The problem is the school's location.
UVU is located in Orem, Utah. While that city name may not ring any bells, the city that it's attached to should: Provo, Utah, home of BYU.
BYU is the biggest sports draw in a sports-crazy state, collegiate or professional. The school's athletics program brings in more money and fans than either the Utah Jazz or Real Salt Lake (the two professional sports teams in the state). The importance of BYU to sports in the state of Utah is similar to the importance that the University of Oregon or University of Oklahoma have in their respective states.
And it's not just sports. BYU is also the biggest academic power in the state. While the University of Utah more than holds its own in both athletics and academics, every other university in the state lives to some degree in BYU or the "U of U's" shadow.
Unfortunately for UVU, they don't just figuratively live in BYU's shadow. They literally live in it, as a drive of just ten minutes separates the campuses of the two schools.
Life as a newcomer trying to make it in the territory of a well-established behemoth is not easy, especially in college sports. It's the same reason why few people outside the local area have heard of Indiana University South Bend, which is dwarfed by nearby powerhouse Notre Dame.
While BYU pride is all over the Provo-Orem metropolitan area, there is almost no UVU pride. Even right next to UVU's campus, BYU signs, flags, and other fan paraphernalia are proudly displayed. That lack of pride extends even beyond sports, as many UVU students transfer over to BYU if their UVU transcript is good enough. While that may have been acceptable when the school was a junior college, that's not something a university looking to establish itself can pride itself on.
In order to become the school it wants to be, UVU has to establish pride among its students, first and foremost. That's where the basketball team comes into play.
UVU has never had a football team, so it falls to the basketball team to garner recognition for the school and be a point of pride for its students to rally around. This season marks the first real chance they have had to do so, as before joining the WAC this season, they were not in a conference with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Although the Wolverines were a Division I basketball team, they were among the handful of outcasts who had no real shot at achieving anything noticeable on the court.
Which brings us back to last night's UVU-NMSU basketball game.
The Wolverines found themselves in a surprising position, standing near the top of the WAC in their first season in the conference. The major obstacle between them and a regular-season conference title was a big one however: the New Mexico State Aggies, the powerhouse team in WAC basketball.
On their home court, the Wolverines fought back and forth with the Aggies—tying the game with just seconds left when Keawe Enos pump-faked beyond the arc and drew a foul on NMSU's 7'5" behemoth center Sim Bhullar, and sunk all three free throws to send the game into overtime. After that improbable comeback, the Wolverines took over in overtime, delivering the biggest win in school history and prompting the rushing of the court that ended with the infamous brawl.
Thanks to that win, UVU now has a real shot at winning the conference regular-season title. That accomplishment, though it may not seem significant to most outsiders, would be a milestone in UVU history. While the brawl itself was terrible, the fact that UVU fans had that much passion is a very good thing for the school. Games like this can be the foundation for a solid program that gets the fans excited and becomes a source of pride for the school and its students.
So while a large chunk of the country shakes their head at UVU basketball after last night's game, this die-hard BYU fan applauds them.