Provo • Suspense was in relatively short supply on Thursday night when BYU hosted Idaho State in one of those final-exam-week specials where the more powerful team takes on an opponent it knows it can handle to make the week as stress-free as possible while not taking it entirely off.
But the Cougars and Bengals provided some anyway, for those following BYU’s improved defensive effort this season, in front of an announced crowd of 14,660 at the Marriott Center.
The visiting Bengals were able to surpass the 70-point barrier with a 3-pointer with five seconds left in the 85-71 loss, becoming the first team in the Cougars’ seven-game winning streak to do that.
“We do feel like that’s too many points to give up,” said BYU guard Jahshire Hardnett.
Yes, things really are different in Provo this season. The Cougars are 10-2 and focusing as much on defense as at any time in coach Dave Rose’s 13-year tenure.
“I think we showed signs in this game of getting better,” Rose said.
Going in, the Cougars feared a letdown against an ISU team sprinkled with Utahns, junior college transfers and a big 7-footer in Novak Topalovic, a Serbian who played his prep ball in California. That’s because BYU was coming off Saturday’s emotional 77-65 win over Utah and dealing with final exams as recently as Thursday afternoon.
A drop-off in intensity didn’t happen for the Cougars, but their start suggested it might.
Topalovic scored five inside baskets in ISU’s first 10 possessions, basically moving Luke Worthington closer and closer to the rim until he had an easy layup.
“We didn’t want them to come in here and start raining 3s,” Rose said. “They hit 10 3s in every game the last four or five games.”
Topalovic eventually cooled off and went to the bench with two fouls with just under eight minutes remaining in the first half, and the Cougars took control with a 14-2 run that pretty much ended the threat. He finished with a team-high 16.
Sophomore Yoeli Childs matched the big Serb basket for basket in the early going and had 17 of his game-high 20 before intermission.
But the big story for BYU in the first half was fellow sophomore Payton Dastrup, who hit a 3-pointer and a driving basket on back-to-back possessions after ISU had taken a 19-18 lead. Dastrup finished with a career-high 14 points in 14 minutes on 5-for-5 shooting and made two 3-pointers for the second straight game.
“Payton is the funniest and most outgoing guy on the team, and it shows on the court as well,” said Zac Seljaas, who added seven points. Elijah Bryant and TJ Haws chipped in 14 apiece and the Cougars shot 58 percent from the floor.
Rose hinted that defense, not offense, is what has been keeping Dastrup off the floor. Whatever the case, the 6-10 Arizonan has flourished in two of the three games that fellow four-man Dalton Nixon has been out with a foot injury.
“Payton is really developing in the post where we can play through our post guys,” Rose said. “Defensively is where he really continues to grow. We played a lot of zone with him in there tonight, which I think he is really effective in, naturally.”
The Bengals (4-6) only got past 70 points because they scrapped the plan to go to Topalovic on virtually every possession and started hitting their 3-pointers in the second half. After starting 1 of 13 from beyond the arc, they finished making seven of their last 10.
“I thought on the defensive end we might have been maybe a step slow, not so much in our execution of our game plan, but just free-opportunity plays we gave them,” Rose said.
Reserve guard Gary Chivichyan hit a triple with five seconds remaining after ISU fouled BYU’s Evan Troy with 26 seconds left as ISU scored the most points against BYU since Alabama had 71 back on Nov. 24, the Cougars’ last loss.
BYU stays at home Saturday and hosts Texas Southern in its final nonconference game of the season.
• Yoeli Childs scores 17 of his game-high 20 points in the first half, and the Cougars win their seventh straight game.
• The Cougars shoot 50 percent from 3-point range — 7 of 14 — and 58 percent from the field.
• Idaho State makes seven 3-pointers in the second half and becomes the first team to score more than 70 points against BYU in the last seven games.