Moraga, Calif. • Their hopes for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid crushed late Thursday night by their inability to stop dribble penetration, stay out of foul trouble and produce low-post scoring, the BYU Cougars stayed in the Bay Area on Friday and quickly turned their attention to an even bigger challenge.
Second-place Saint Mary’s (19-7, 9-4 West Coast Conference) awaits the Cougars (17-10, 9-5) at McKeon Pavilion in a 6 p.m. MST clash that will be televised by ESPN2. While the Cougars were losing 89-82 at seventh-place Pacific, the Gaels were moving past them in the league standings with a 69-57 win over San Diego.
What’s at stake for third-place BYU, besides pride against a blossoming rival, on a night when the Gaels will retire the No. 4 jersey worn just a year ago by star guard Matthew Dellavedova? That’s simple: seeding for the WCC tournament, which BYU now has to win to get back to the big dance.
The top six seeds get first-round byes. The Cougars seem safe in that regard, although their glaring defensive deficiencies — which surfaced again against middling Pacific — mean they can take nothing for granted this season.
The next four games are still big because the difference between the third and fourth seed is huge in avoiding first-place Gonzaga (12-1) until the championship game.
“We just have to move on to the next one,” BYU guard Matt Carlino said after scoring 28 points off the bench against the Tigers. “We can’t let this turn into two [losses] again. I mean, we have to go into Saint Mary’s now. We have to put this one behind us and get better from it.”
The Cougars fell to 2-5 in WCC road games, and with no seniors they are clearly a different team away from the Marriott Center, where they are 7-0 in league games.
“I don’t know [why the Cougars struggle on the road],” Carlino said. “I couldn’t tell you. We are just different … I can’t explain it. I mean, I don’t feel different. I don’t really ask the other guys if they feel different. But we can’t get it done right now, so we need to change it.”
For one, their big guys are far more foul-prone on the road than at home. Freshman forward Eric Mika averages 2.4 fouls at home, 4.0 on the road; junior forward Nate Austin’s home-away fouls in WCC games are 2.6 and 4.4.
On Thursday, Mika, Austin and subs Josh Sharp and Luke Worthington combined to play 74 minutes, committed 15 fouls and scored only 6 points on 2-of-6 shooting. Starters Mika (22) and Austin (30) played just 52 minutes because they picked up two fouls each in the first half.
That doesn’t bode well for BYU against the Gaels, who routinely dump the ball into talented big man Brad Waldow, a tough guard one-on-one and a foul magnet inside.
“Yeah, tough game [coming up],” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “Saint Mary’s is very similar in what they do [to Pacific]. … We will have the same challenge with Saint Mary’s — just that low post. The defensive assignment in that low post will be really tough.”
BYU vs. Saint Mary’s
O At McKeon Pavilion, Moraga, Calif.
Tipoff • 6 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 17-10 (10-4 WCC); Saint Mary’s 19-7 (9-4)
Series history • BYU leads 9-6
Last meeting • BYU 84, Saint Mary’s 71 (Feb. 1)
About the Gaels • They will retire the jersey (No. 4) of Matthew Dellavedova at halftime. … Former Utah State player James Walker III scored a career-high 21 points in their 69-57 win over San Diego on Thursday night. … Stephen Holt added 13 points and Kerry Carter chipped in 12.
About the Cougars • They are 2-5 in WCC road games this season and have never won at McKeon Pavilion in two previous tries. … Matt Carlino scored 28 points off the bench in their 89-82 loss at Pacific on Thursday night, and Tyler Haws added 20 before fouling out for the first time in his BYU career.