Except for the backdrop of so many empty seats, the inaugural Zions Bank Basketball Classic accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do.
The event introduced Weber State guard Jerrick Harding to an audience that needed to know about him, even in defeat. BYU’s 74-68 victory at Vivint Smart Home Arena was made more meaningful just because of everything Harding did to make the Cougars overcome him — including the delicious coincidence of former teammate McKay Cannon’s denying him the ball on the game’s most critical possession.
“We had quite a night, trying to guard him,” said BYU coach Dave Rose.
Weber State’s missing double-figures scorers Brekkott Chapman and Zach Braxton due to injuries made Harding even more valuable than usual, and he delivered 29 points. BYU answered with TJ Haws’ 24 points and a revitalized defense that came through in the end.
Harding scored on a series of seemingly impossible, driving shots in a memorable performance, never mind the outcome. “I was always one of the shortest guys,” said the 6-foot-1 sophomore, “so I had to figure out a way to score over bigger guys.”
If some of his creative, difficult shots shocked the Cougars, that’s OK. Harding surprises himself at times, although teammate Dusty Baker said, “He does that every night … we expect him to make those shots.”
But the shot Harding never got to take may have decided the game. Cannon kept him from getting the ball on a sequence that ended with BYU’s Yoeli Childs blocking Baker on a drive with 36 seconds left and the Cougars leading by two points.
BYU’s 10-of-19 shooting from 3-point range ultimately made the difference, as the Wildcats went 6 of 24.
Those statistics aside, the number everybody will be talking about is the attendance of 7,729 for this event. Welcome to the Beehive Classic … where nobody’s home.
That theme covers the neutral court and the low attendance for the debut of the long-awaited doubleheader. I’ll never criticize fans for not attending events, considering the investment of time, effort and money. The marketplace speaks, in these matters. So we’ll see what marketing adjustments organizers make over the remaining two years of the contract with the four schools — including next December, when BYU and Utah will be paired.
The No. 1 priority should be to do something to get some students in the building, creating more of a traditional college basketball atmosphere. What’s wrong with free admission for a few thousand of them, anyway?
If nothing else, the doubleheader increased the anticipation for next Saturday’s BYU-Utah game in Provo. Coaches from both schools liked being able to watch the other guys, in this circumstance. “You don’t get to live-scout too often,” said Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak.
As for the Cougars’ effort vs. Weber State, the most intriguing question involved whether BYU’s defense could hold a fifth straight opponent under 70 points. The Cougars’ last such run came in February 2015 against a series of West Coast Conference opponents.
Going into Saturday’s game, the Cougars were 6-0 this season and 209-9 in Rose’s tenure when keeping the other guys in the 60s or lower. Weber State’s makeshift lineup seemingly gave BYU a great chance of extending this defensive resurgence.
Naturally, the Wildcats hit 3 -pointers on their first two possessions, netted 10 points on their first five trips and scored 16 in the game’s first even minutes. The Cougars got tougher after that. They kept Weber State under a 70-point pace in the first half (leading 36-32), even though Harding’s knack for scoring on tough shots gave him 16 points.
A star in the making?
That’s not Weber State’s orientation. “I’ll just tell you this: He’s a pretty damn good player,” coach Randy Rahe said.