Provo • The Cougars’ season and their dreams of making it to the NCAA Tournament for a seventh straight year were in trouble, and BYU basketball coach Dave Rose knew it.
His team had been blown out 83-62 the previous Saturday at Iowa State, and was trailing arch rival Utah by nine points at halftime. Leading scorer Tyler Haws was on his way to a 2-for-10 shooting performance, frustrated by a clever box-and-one defense designed to make another BYU player beat the Utes. Brandon Davies was struggling against Utah’s size inside.
So Rose turned to the mercurial point guard he had benched four games ago for ineffective play, and sophomore Matt Carlino delivered.
His clutch 3-point shooting and timely ballhawking helped BYU eke out a 61-58 win at the Marriott Center on Dec. 8. In a way, the UCLA transfer has been rescuing the Cougars ever since — although not quite to the extent that Haws and Davies have saved a season that was threatening to spiral downward.
Still, Carlino has emerged as that third scorer and heady playmaker the Cougars desperately needed.
“The Utah game was really big for him,” Rose acknowledged. “He went in and finally made some big shots. … He wasn’t shooting the ball very well at all before that game. So confidence is a big issue, but I think his pace has been really good. He has picked his spots. Everything is better. His assists are better, his rebounds are better, his shooting percentage is better. So confidence has played a big deal in that.”
The 15-5 Cougars, who were a middling 5-3 before outscoring the Utes 35-23 in the second half, will need second-half Matt to continue his resurgence if they have any hope of knocking off No. 10 Gonzaga on Thursday night at McCarthey Athletic Center in a huge West Coast Conference game. In the WCC semifinals last March, Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos ripped BYU for 30 points on 10-for-17 shooting and the Zags took an easy 77-58 win.
“Consistency is the issue,” Rose said. “This league is really full of great point guards, not only offensive point guards, but defensive point guards, and so I think Matt has really done a great job of stepping up to that challenge. His efficiency over the last five or six games has been terrific.”
That BYU would have been given a sliver of a chance to hang with Gonzaga a month or so ago would have been unfathomable. But Carlino’s turnaround has injected hope into a program, coupled with some improved play by fellow starter Brock Zylstra and Haws’ incredible consistency.
“When Matty is playing well, he makes everybody around him better,” Haws said. “When he is playing fast, it really helps the pace of our team. We are really happy with the way he is playing right now.”
Carlino finally lost his starting job after the fifth game of the season when he went 1 for 8 in 10 minutes in an 81-62 win over Texas-San Antonio. Before that, he was a combined 1 for 14 in losses to Florida State and Notre Dame at a tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y. He regained it after the Utah win, and his numbers have been significantly better ever since. In the last six conference games, they’ve been even better.
“I just wasn’t myself, for some reason,” Carlino said of his bad start. “I feel like I was forcing some stuff earlier in the year. Not necessarily shots, but just forcing some play that might not have been me. I think I am just more in a rhythm now, and just more comfortable.”
Carlino is averaging 16.0 points and 5.3 assists in conference play, compared with 9.9 points and 4.4 assists in all 20 games.
“I feel like we have been getting a lot better as a team, not only myself,” he said. “I think that has shown out there. We just need to keep improving. I am excited about our team’s future.”
Carlino’s best friend on the team and roommate the past year or so, backup guard Anson Winder, said Carlino’s mental toughness got him through the rough stretch in November and early December.
“Matt is one of the mentally toughest guys I’ve ever been around,” Winder said. “Some guys can start off in slumps like that and never recover. And then the whole year is really bad. I feel like he has adjusted, and he has handled it really well, and you can see it in his play now. He is playing so much better. It was a matter of him staying confident and staying positive.”
Winder said Carlino’s ability to laugh at himself and keep his confidence intact when his play was sour is important.
“He’s a playful guy off the court,” Winder said. “He is always laughing and joking around. People don’t really see him in that element. They just see him playing basketball, and he always has his game face on. I mean, whenever we are hanging out, no matter who we are with, he is always the funniest guy in the room.”
BYU at No. 10 Gonzaga
O At the McCarthey Athletic Center (Spokane, Wash.)
Tipoff • Thursday, 9 p.m. MT
TV • ESPN2. Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 15-5, 5-1 WCC; Gonzaga 17-2, 4-0 WCC
Series history • Gonzaga leads 3-2
Last meeting • Gonzaga 77, BYU 58 (March 3, 2012)
About the Bulldogs • They are led in scoring by 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk, who averages 18.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. … Elias Harris (14.9 ppg.) and Kevin Pangos (12.1 ppg.) are also averaging in double figures. … They are averaging 79.4 ppg. and allowing just 63.2 ppg.
About the Cougars • They went 1-2 against Gonzaga last year, winning 83-73 in Provo before falling 74-63 at Spokane and then again in the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas. ... Guard Tyler Haws leads the WCC in scoring with a 21.6 average and has scored 20 or more points 14 times this season. ... Guard Matt Carlino has scored in double figures in six straight games, a career high.
A closer look
Carlino’s first 8 games of the season
Pts FG FGA Pct 3FG 3FGA Reb Ast
6.2 21 60 .350 3 22 2.8 4.5
Carlino’s past 12 games
Pts FG FGA Pct 3FG 3FGA Reb Ast
12.2 56 126 .444 19 51 3.8 4.2