Provo • The BYU Cougars discovered a potential shooting star on Saturday night while ending their four-game losing streak. But more importantly, they might have also stumbled upon the identity that will ensure another lengthy skid doesn’t happen again anytime soon.
Making his first career start in the place of struggling guard Matt Carlino, junior college transfer Skyler Halford lit up San Diego for a career-high 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting and Cougars got back on the winning track against their West Coast Conference nemesis from last year. They ripped through the Toreros 87-53 in front of 15,760 at the Marriott Center to improve to 1-2 in WCC play, 9-7 overall.
Halford, who learned during practice that he would get the nod at the starting shooting guard spot, was easily the story of the game — but not just for his offensive explosion. He also drew the assignment of slowing down San Diego star Johnny Dee, and did just that, as the second-leading scorer in the WCC had just eight points on 2-of-10 shooting, all in the first half.
“The basket just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Halford said, after making 4 of 8 3-point attempts, part of the Cougars’ 8-for-17 effort from beyond the arc. That after BYU was just a combined 4 of 21 from 3-point range in WCC-opening losses to Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.
Coach Dave Rose said he started Halford over Carlino because of the momentum the team had in the second half of the second half of the 80-74 loss to Pepperdine on Monday.
“We just wanted to build on that. Sky was a big part of that, and so that’s kind of how we made the decision to start him tonight,” Rose said.
It might also have been a signal that the coaching staff is going to insist on better defense from its frontline players. With the Cougars harassing them on almost every possession, the Toreros (0-3, 9-7) were just 34.5 percent from the field and 11.8 percent (2 of 17) from 3-point range.
“I really think this team has kind of identified themselves with their offense, and tonight it was totally different,” Rose said. “We were a defensive team, playing with urgency on every defensive possession. We need to bottle that and make that become a huge part of the identity of this group. Hopefully, we can.”
Halford said he couldn’t take all the credit for shutting down Dee — who picked up his second foul with about eight minutes remaining in the first half and played just 24 minutes — but figured he could do it as well as anyone because he could match the high-scoring junior’s energy.
“He is racing around the floor all the time,” Halford said. “It was a big team effort on containing him.”
If there was a sour note from a game in which the Cougars led by as many as 37 points and won the rebounding battle 45-27, including 25-10 in the first half, it was that freshman center Eric Mika suffered a hip contusion and left the game in the second half with 13 points.
“I don’t know,” Rose said when asked about Mika’s condition. Head athletic trainer Rob Ramos “told me what the situation is, and right now I can’t tell you if that is good or bad. We will just have to see.”
Offensively, the Cougars racked up 25 assists on 31 buckets, after having combined for 26 against LMU and Pepperdine, combined. It was only the third time this season that Tyler Haws (17 points) hasn’t led the Cougars in scoring in games in which he has played. Kyle Collinsworth added 12 points, eight assists and seven rebounds with just two turnovers in his fourth game as the starting point guard.
“I think we saw a side of this team which we haven’t seen, which is encouraging for us, moving forward,” Rose said.