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Provo • The BYU Cougars showed they could win a West Coast Conference basketball game without leading scorer Noah Hartsock on Saturday afternoon.
In front of a sellout crowd of 22,700 at home.
Against a lower-level WCC team that they beat by 19 points three weeks ago and was blown out by 27 points two days earlier by Saint Mary’s.
But not by much.
With Hartsock dressed but not seeing action as he continues to nurse a sore left knee, the Cougars held off the surprisingly resilient Portland Pilots 76-66 at the Marriott Center to clinch sole possession of third place as their inaugural season in the WCC concluded on Senior Night.
"That’s a really big win for our team," BYU coach Dave Rose said.
But it was far from satisfying, not even close to convincing, and pretty much illustrated that if Hartsock can’t return next week, the Cougars’ chances of winning the conference tournament at Orleans Arena are as likely as striking it rich at a Las Vegas casino.
"It was tough seeing [Hartsock] on the bench, and not being able to put him in, in some tough spots," Rose said.
Imagine, then, what it could be like against the Pepperdine-San Diego winner on Friday (9 p.m. MST) at the tournament. Or against the Gaels or Zags.
Appearing at the postgame news conference in street clothes, Hartsock acknowledged that he also has a sprained ankle, but said he is "feeling pretty good and confident" that he will be able to play Friday.
Without his frontcourt running mate, Brandon Davies had another outstanding game, just as he did in Thursday’s 74-63 loss at Gonzaga. He had 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and the Cougars took advantage of a big disparity at the free-throw line — sound familiar? — to avoid the upset.
Brock Zylstra added 20 points and nine rebounds — again flourishing against a subpar WCC team — and senior Charles Abouo went out the right way in what the Cougars hope was his final game at the Marriott Center with a 16-point, eight-rebound game.
More importantly, Abouo took over after the Pilots got within 67-61 with 3:53 remaining. While Portland went scoreless for the next two minutes, Abouo scored five straight points, creating a three-point play with a steal and driving layup, to get the Cougars (24-7, 12-4) out of the woods.
Portland fell to 6-23, 3-13, but bounced back nicely after losing 70-43 to the Gaels two days ago.
"We worked really hard to defend them without fouling and not let them head to the free-throw line like we did last time we played," Portland coach Eric Reveno said.
The Cougars were 21 for 31 at the line Saturday, after going 38 for 53 in the 79-60 win at Portland. They assisted on only 13 of 25 field goals, however, and at times hurried too much, made mistakes with the ball and settled for poor shots without Hartsock out there as the steadying force.
"I think that we showed some really good signs tonight," Rose said. "I think what you saw tonight was a team that was a little bit inconsistent in its ability to continue to execute all night long. What you want to have, is you want to have a team that is executing for 40 minutes at this time of the year, and we are still trying to find that."
Left unsaid by the coach: Getting Hartsock back might be the first step toward that discovery.
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