Las Vegas

Almost anything the BYU did Monday night against Saint Mary’s would have been better than what happened last March in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament.

What the Cougars accomplished is better than anything they had done all season.

BYU played practically a perfect game in an 85-72 defeat of the No. 20-ranked Gaels at the Orleans Arena.

The remaining variable in this tournament is that a lot could go wrong for BYU, facing No. 6 Gonzaga in Tuesday’s championship game. Yet the Cougars (24-9) have given themselves a shot at their first conference tournament title since 2001, and they hardly could ask for more than this opportunity to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

“The bottom line is, we feel like we’re built to win this tournament,” said BYU coach Dave Rose.

BYU earned Monday’s victory with 33 points from forward Yoeli Childs and 25 from guard Elijah Bryant, 61.1-percent shooting as a team, outstanding defense in the second half and a poised performance every time Saint Mary’s threatened to take over the game.

So there really is a Big Three in the WCC, and BYU is part of it. All season, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s (28-5) have dominated the WCC conversation and justifiably so. But BYU played its way into the title game.

“We were not very good defensively,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, “and I don’t know why.”

The Cougars have never gone 0-5 in a season against WCC powers Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Doing so this season seemed unlikely as of late December, when they led the Gaels by six points and had the ball with five minutes remaining. They ended up losing in overtime and couldn’t stick with Saint Mary’s on the road or Gonzaga in either regular-season meeting. So going into the semifinals, it seemed likely that they would finish with a winless record against those teams this season.

But they broke through with a solid, 40-minute effort Monday against the Gaels. Saint Mary’s has three senior starters, including top scorers Jock Landale and Calvin Hermansen, but BYU — with no seniors — looked like the more veteran team when things got tough.

Right after their lead was cut to 55-54 midway through the second half, the Cougars responded with a 12-0 run, led by Childs and Dalton Nixon,

Even with a 12-point lead in the last six minutes, though, BYU needed some toughness to finish this game. TJ Haws and Bryant came through with clutch drives for the Cougars in the last three minutes, after Saint Mary’s got within six points.

BYU’s win stemmed from good offensive strategy in the second half. Saint Mary’s center Landale, a Wooden Award finalist, picked up his third foul late in the first half. While he stayed on the court in the second half, he obviously was conscious of avoiding fouls. The Cougars went right at him, with excellent interior passes and strong finishes.

BYU’s offensive success more than offset Landale’s 23 points, with 20 of the Cougars’ 28 baskets coming via assists — including seven from Haws and four from Nixon.

Everything about BYU’s first-half showing was more encouraging than the way the Cougars played against Saint Mary’s in last March’s semifinals. That game turned into a disgrace; BYU trailed 60-28 at one stage of an 81-50 defeat.

Monday was another story entirely. “This was a really satisfying, especially for the guys who were with us last year,” Rose said.

Childs’ 18-point first half, topped by a late 3-pointer, gave the Cougars a 41-37 lead.

BYU’s 14-6 closing stretch was impressive. Just as important was Landale’s collecting his third foul, contesting Nixon’s drive for a basket.

The Cougars never trailed in the second half, even though Saint Mary’s seemed capable of overtaking them. BYU lost a 17-point lead against San Diego in Saturday’s quarterfinals, but the Gaels couldn’t cut significantly into the Cougars’ lead as the semifinal game wound down. And BYU was on to bigger things in Las Vegas.