Provo • In the overall scheme of things, BYU’s 71-66 win over Saint Mary’s on Thursday night in front of an announced crowd of 11,427 at the Marriott Center probably did nothing for the Cougars’ standing in the West Coast Conference men’s basketball race.
No team is going to come close to catching fourth-ranked Gonzaga in the fight for the regular-season title. That’s been evident since November, maybe even earlier.
But this was a game the wildly inconsistent Cougars absolutely had to win to appease their restless fans and inject some energy into a season marred by blowout losses to fellow WCC also-rans San Francisco and Saint Mary’s earlier this month.
Also, consider the alternative: BYU (5-2, 13-9) would have had to sit on another devastating loss to the hated Gaels for seven days while awaiting next Thursday’s visit from the Zags. Frustration with a team and coaching staff that many believe is underachieving would have been heightened that much more.
GONZAGA AT BYU
When • Thursday, 9 p.m.
Instead, the Cougars played one of their best defensive games of the season. Saint Mary’s committed 15 turnovers, assisted on just five of its 26 field goals, and missed its first 13 3-point attempts.
“We scored quite a few points off turnovers,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “They turned the ball over 15 times and we scored 17 points off those. I think that was a big factor, too, in the game.”
The Cougars, who had the lead for more than 24 minutes and led by as many as 12 points in the second half, still had to dig deep to pull it out after SMC closed the gap to two points with 3:41remaining.
TJ Haws and Yoeli Childs, who the Cougars have to rely on every night, delivered consecutive baskets and Gavin Baxter added a thunderous a dunk.
“Our guys had just a really confident look” during a timeout, Rose said. “All of them, the bench guys, the five starters sitting there. And when I sat down to address them you could just tell that guys were determined that we were going to make this happen."
And now there’s a glimmer of intrigue, a sliver of hope, for GU’s visit.
“That is one of the most satisfying things as a coach, is to have so many guys making big plays, game-winning plays," Rose said. "That’s a good win for us.”
And one the Cougars had to get, for a lot of reasons.
• Saint Mary’s played poorly on offense, shooting just 44 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range, but still had a chance to win for the third-straight time at the Marriott Center. That’s a bit troubling for BYU, which looked outclassed 19 days ago on the Gaels court.
• BYU improved to 10-1 in home games, its only loss at the Marriott Center a 76-62 setback to a very good Houston team back on Nov. 24. The Cougars simply play better at home in front of their boisterous crowd, as many teams do.
“I don’t know if it is from that long road stretch, but I felt like the crowd was unbelievable tonight,” Childs said. “I was really impressed by our fans. I thought they did a great job giving us an energy boost. I think they obviously had a big effect on the Saint Mary’s guys.”
• It’s probably time for Rose to shuffle his starting lineup. Baxter, the freshman returned missionary from Timpview High, changed the game Thursday by shutting down SMC’s Malik Fitts, who torched Luke Worthington early and often. It is pretty obvious that Baxter deserves more minutes, after posting 10 points, five rebounds and two blocks in a career-high 27 minutes.
Player of the Week
Yoeli Childs. Game in and game out, the 6-foot-8 forward from South Jordan carries the Cougars on his back, along with fellow junior TJ Haws. Childs posted the 32nd double-double of his career, and 12th this season, by scoring 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the win. I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating: This team would be in a world of hurt without Childs.
Play of the Week
TJ Haws’ floater in the paint with 3:28 remaining. After Zac Seljaas’ steal and breakaway dunk gave BYU a 61-49 lead, the Cougars had three empty possessions before Haws ended the scoring drought, and a 10-0 SMC run, with a big shot to stop the bleeding.
A scheduling break gives the Cougars some extra time to prepare for the mighty Zags, but that won’t likely matter. Gonzaga (19-2) pummeled Santa Clara 98-39 Thursday night and has pretty much been able to name the score against every WCC opponent not named San Francisco this season.
The Zags host San Diego on Saturday while BYU rests.
“We are probably going to take [Friday] off and then Saturday get them in early, get a lift, get some shots up and then get ready for Monday,” Rose said of the Cougars’ weekend plans. Haws and Childs said their plan was to take their wives on dates Saturday night, something they haven’t been able to do since October.