Provo • Ten seconds after he entered a college basketball game for the first time in more than 20 months, BYU’s Nick Emery fired up a 3-pointer.
A huge, collective sigh of relief from the announced crowd of 11,377 at the Marriott Center followed a bit more than an hour later, as the Cougars snapped their three-game losing skid with a resounding 95-80 rout of Utah State.
“I totally expected that,” BYU coach Dave Rose said.
He was talking about Emery’s quick trigger, and not 6-4 BYU’s seventh straight win over Utah State (7-2), which came into the game not only hoping to end the Cougars’ stranglehold on the series, but trying to beat BYU in football and basketball in Provo in the same season for the first time since 1973-74.
Didn’t happen. And it wasn’t even that close, much like USU’s 45-20 win down the street at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The Cougars shot 58 percent in the first half, put the defensive clamps on USU’s high-scoring guard, Sam Merrill, and took a 53-34 halftime lead en route to erasing some of the memories of recent losses to Weber State, Illinois State and Houston.
“We took on a team that was playing as well as any team in the country as far as their results the last few weeks, and our guys were ready from the start,” Rose said. “We have been a team that has had some real flat spots, even in our wins. Tonight we had a little one early in the second half, but other than that I thought it was a group of really determined guys that wanted to change things. So, I am proud of them.”
BYU’s Yoeli Childs had 31 points, seven rebounds and five steals to lead all scorers, while TJ Haws added 20 points and seven assists. Connor Harding scored a career-high 14 points and Emery was 3 of 4 from 3-point range in his debut.
“I thought Nick was probably way better than I thought he would be,” Rose said. “Not that I don’t think he is capable of playing like that. I just know everything from Day 1 to now of what he has been through, and how emotional this was for him, and how much he wanted this to happen. Now that that is over, we will just move forward. I know the guys are happy to have him.”
Senior walk-on McKay Cannon got the start for the first time this season in the place of Dalton Nixon for the sole purpose of making life difficult for Merrill, and the strategy worked. Merrill, who was averaging nearly 22 points per game, finished with a team-high 17, but just four of those came in the first half when the Aggies were blown off the floor.
“All to slow down Sam,” Rose said of Cannon’s start. “Sam is not only having a great career, but a terrific year. The first five, seven, eight minutes, we just wanted to try and tire him out the best we could. McKay did a tremendous job, especially early in the game.”
Harding, Emery and Jahshire Hardnett also “got a piece of it” guarding Merrill, Rose said. “He still had a pretty good game. It is hard to keep him down.”
Trailing by 19 at halftime, USU got back-to-back 3-pointers by Brock Miller and Merrill to perhaps signal the second half would be different. But those were USU’s first 3-pointers of the game, and the Aggies would make just one more, by Diogo Brito, on 17 total attempts.
“We didn’t want to give up anything tonight,” said Haws.
BYU was 7 of 13 from 3-point range in the first half and finished 11 of 24 from deep.
“If we can shoot 11 for 24 every night, I would take it before we even started [the game], I think,” Rose said. “That’s a pretty good number.”
Emery banked in a 3-pointer from the baseline — as difficult as that is to do — five minutes after his opening trey, and the Cougars began thinking this might just be their night. And they really had to believe when Haws sank a triple to beat the shot clock with around five minutes remaining.
That drew a big groan from USU coach Craig Smith, whose team won the rebounding battle 34-24 and shot a 48.3 percent, but couldn’t stop BYU on the other end.
Or snap the Cougars’ winning streak in the series.