Provo • Too bad the Utah Jazz play host to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night, because BYU could really use Donovan Mitchell and some of his teammates earlier that day in its long-awaited showdown with Saint Mary’s.
No, Mitchell, Raul Neto and Naz Mitrou-Long don’t have any college eligibility left, but they make outstanding cheerleaders. With the NBA Rookie of the Year candidate and six or so friends looking on from the front row, BYU routed Portland 69-45 in front of an announced crowd of 16,592 at the Marriott Center with one of its finest defensive efforts of the season
“It is kind of a distraction. You get a little sideshow going with all the fans [asking for pictures and autographs],” said BYU coach Dave Rose. “But it was fun to have them here.”
It was also fun to see his team respond in the second half, when Portland (6-8, 0-1 West Coast Conference) twice pulled within a point in the first six minutes after the Cougars led 31-24 at the break. The Cougars (12-2, 1-0) went on an 18-2 run after being challenged and coasted to their ninth-straight win.
BYU’s Elijah Bryant and Mitchell remain friends from their prep school days when Bryant played for New Hampton and Mitchell for Brewster in New Hampshire, and Bryant rewarded the Jazz star’s visit with a career night.
The junior scored 22 points and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds. Meanwhile, sophomore Yoeli Childs also turned in one of his best performances as a Cougar, scoring a career-high 26 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.
“It was cool,” said Bryant of the Jazz players’ visit. “I haven’t seen [Mitchell] since our prep school days. It was good. He said he might try to get to the game Saturday, but I am pretty sure they have a game, so I don’t know how that is going to work.”
Of course, Saturday’s game is huge. Saint Mary’s is picked to win the WCC and absolutely demolished BYU last March in the WCC tournament semifinals. If the Cougars play defense like they did in the second half Thursday, when they held the visitors to a scoring drought that lasted more than six minutes, they have a shot to avenge that defeat.
Portland was 5 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half, but just 2 of 15 from deep in the second half. After JoJo Walker (team-high 11 points) banked in a 3-pointer with 16:20 remaining, the Pilots missed their next 13 long-range attempts.
“Well, that’s a good way to start the league, with a game where I thought our guys were really committed on the defensive end,” Rose said.
The Cougars shot 52 percent in the first half and 50 percent in the game, but struggled to score early.
“It is a good thing we got some turnovers, which led to some easy baskets, because we were having a heckuva time scoring in the first half,” Rose said. “In the second half, we even got better defensively, which is a good sign. League wins are always special when you get that first one and now we will move on and look forward to Saturday.”
Childs was especially active, despite going against the WCC’s leading shot blocker, Portland’s 7-foot-2 center Phillipp Hartwich.
The senior from Germany blocked five shots, two more than his average, but the Cougars kept taking it to the rim when outside shots wouldn’t fall in the first half, and they were rewarded.
“We have been talking all year about how no matter what the defense does, it is wrong,” said Childs, who had two blocked shots of his own. “Their big was coming over, and he’s a great shot blocker, so I was just getting easy dump-offs. I think we are a really frustrating team to guard when we play like that and we play unselfish. Nobody cares who scores. Nobody cares about their numbers. Everybody just cares about making the right play and getting the win.”
With starting point guard Jahshire Hardnett in a bit of foul trouble, McKay Cannon sparked the Cougars off the bench with seven points, three rebounds and an assist.
“But Eli and Yo were huge on both ends, rebounding the ball and converting baskets at the rim,” Rose said. “They did a great job getting to the free-throw line. That was a good lift for us.”