In a game eerily similar to the one a month ago at San Diego, the Cougars once again failed to make the plays they needed to make down the stretch and fell 72-69 to the Toreros on Friday night at Orleans Arena.
So the Cougars dropped to 21-11, but more devastatingly, saw their last hope of getting to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh-straight year (via the automatic bid that goes to the WCC tournament champion) go up in smoke as well.
Biggest play of the game?
After Brandon Davies tied it at 62-62 with two free throws, USD's Johnny Dee banked in a runner. Craig Cusick was whistled for the foul, and Dee's free throw gave the Toreros a 3-point cushion.
Tyler Haws then missed a shot on BYU's end, and the Cougars were in scramble mode.
It was very similar to what happened at Saint Mary's and what happened at home against Gonzaga. The Cougars simply didn't make the plays down the stretch, and their opponents did.
Coach Dave Rose's opening statement in the postgame news conference alluded to that fact.
"I thought we competed very hard," he said. "We may not have played as well as we are capable of playing. A lot of that had to do with San Diego's defensive pressure.
I thought early in the game their size bothered us.
Then I felt we settled in in the second half, and found some opportunities that were good for us, good matchups.
We just couldn't sustain the lead a couple of times. We had a possession or two where we could increase the lead, and they always seemed to have an answer.
They were great down the stretch offensively, executing and making free throws. It came down to the last shot, and we came up a little bit short."
Haws and Brandon Davies had 20 points apiece for the Cougars, but Haws started slowly, taking just four shots in the first half and scoring four points. He played just 12 minutes in the first half.
"I am a little under the weather, but I guess we were just trying to save my minutes for the second half," Haws said when asked after the game about whether he was still sick, having missed a couple practices earlier in the week due to illness. "But I felt fine, just feel badly that we couldn't get a win tonight."
Trailing 35-28 at halftime, the Cougars put together their best stretch of basketball in the first four minutes of the second half and went into the under 16 media timeout with a 40-38 lead.
But like Rose said, Matt Carlino and Haws turned the ball over and Davies missed a point-blank shot out of the media timeout, and the Cougars' opportunity to leave the Toreros in the dust fizzled out.
Rose's thoughts on the second half:
"I just think defensively we were better in the second half, and that led to some baskets in transition. We played a lot of man [defense] in the second half. I thought we anticipated a lot better, moved to the ball a lot better. I thought we rebounded a lot better, and all those things added up to us playing a little bit better offensively.
But when it came down to big possessions where -- we will have to go back and look at the film -- but we had two or three possessions in a row where we turned the ball over or didn't get a good shot, had empty possessions.
Those are opportunities where you can build your lead and increase your confidence, and it never really got to that.
Give San Diego credit. They were extremely aggressive defensively, challenging passes, challenging balls in the post and then when that opportunity came offensively they just made the plays they needed to make."
Rose used his eighth starting combination of the season, going with Nate Austin instead of Craig Cusick to give the Cougars more firepower inside. Austin was 2 for 6 from the field and grabbed just four rebounds in 21 minutes.
Out of a Rose-called timeout, with the Cougars trailing 59-58, Austin hoisted a 3-pointer from the corner that certainly couldn't have been the play Rose drew up with 3:56 remaining. Haws gave BYU the lead a half-minute later, but Austin's misfire was an example of the Cougars' inability to execute when they really needed to.
"We were in a hole [most of the game]," said Cusick, sent to the postgame news conference instead of Davies, who had 20 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, for some reason.
"We did climb out of it a little bit, but all the credit in the world to San Diego, because their game plan and the way they executed made it difficult for us to get over the [hump], which we weren't able to get over, so we fully take our responsibility for that," Cusick continued. "We had a subpar first half, and obviously, that made it harder for us to come back."
Announced attendance was 7,896, and the crowd was overwhelmingly pro-BYU. However, as underdogs usually do, San Diego seemed to get the non-BYU patrons on its side when the game was on the line.
"It was a heckuva win for us," said USD coach Bill Grier. "I told our guys in the locker room after our loss in Provo [74-57] that we could beat them, and I am so proud of our boys for going out, fighting hard, and winning twice in a row against a very good team. We had confidence going into tonight, and our execution fueled it."
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