When you are asked which locker room celebration was better after a two-game road swing through Southern California, you know you had a pretty good week.
That’s what happened to the BYU basketball team late Saturday, after the Cougars dumped Loyola Marymount 70-62 at Gertsen Pavilion two days after they overcame San Diego 88-82 in overtime at Jenny Craig Pavilion.
BYU was defeated convincingly at both those venues last year, and it appeared that history would repeat itself when it fell behind by 14 at USD and 12 at LMU in the first halves on Thursday and Saturday. But the Cougars rallied to post one of the most impressive weeks they’ve had since they joined the West Coast Conference before the 2011-12 season.
It is becoming evident that this year’s team is more unified, more mentally tough, than last year’s team, and has finally figured out how to stay engaged in games when it falls behind by more than a few points.
“To be able to go into that locker room after the game is over, after a big team win, it feels pretty good,” BYU coach Dave Rose told the BYU sports radio network. “I am really happy for the guys, because of the feel that we are playing with right now. It seems like it is really fun for them, and they have a lot of confidence.”
It is especially gratifying, junior guard Zac Seljaas told the network, because earlier this season the Cougars wilted when they fell behind by more than a couple field goals.
“It is huge for us to be able to see how much we have improved throughout the season, and what a big step it is for us to be able to [overcome adversity] and stick together,” Seljaas said.
Having won five straight games, the Cougars are now 10-3 in WCC play (18-10 overall) and maintained their 1.5-game lead over San Francisco and Saint Mary’s in the all-important race for second place in the WCC standings. Gonzaga (12-0, 25-2) looks uncatchable for first place.
“This team especially, after the tough preseason and the [bad] luck that we had, the results that we had on the road, we need to give all the credit to the guys,” Rose said. “These players fought through it, and took all the criticism and then just said, ‘Hey, we are going to change it. We are going to make it happen.’”
* If the Cougars can shoot the ball from 3-point range like they did last week — 11 of 21 against San Diego, 8 of 20 against LMU — they can beat any team in the West not named Gonzaga.
“This team has been kind of sporadic from the 3-point line, but they’ve put in extra work after practice, and it is paying off right now,” Rose said.
* The Cougars were rightfully feeling good about themselves after the comeback wins, but they should be troubled a bit by the poor first halves in both games. The Toreros and Lions let them dig out of those holes, but some of the remaining opponents on their schedule surely won’t play along.
* The Cougars exhibited some selfish play early in the season, but strong leaders such as Luke Worthington, TJ Haws and Yoeli Childs have seemingly flushed that from the team’s system.
“We just have this tightness together,” Seljaas said. “Everyone just kinda has this bond. When we are on the plane, or at the hotel, we are always together. We are always playing games. There is never anyone left behind. We just have this bond off the court, and it comes with us to the court, and it helps us. And so when these tight games come, we are able to lean on each other and kinda come together.”
Player of the Week: TJ Haws pretty much clinched this honor by scoring 35 points, a career high, against San Diego. Then he set a new career high, with eight assists, against LMU. It was an easy choice, although Yoeli Childs had his usual outstanding games, 27 points and 12 rebounds against USD and 18 points and five assists against LMU.
Play of the Week: The two comebacks produced countless candidates for play of the week, but we’ll go with Gavin Baxter’s offensive rebound with just under two minutes remaining against LMU and the Cougars leading by three. The ball was passed out to Seljaas, who hit a 3-pointer with 1:45 remaining for some breathing room.
Looking ahead: Having been embarrassed 82-63 by San Francisco back on Jan. 19, the Cougars get an opportunity to avenge that blowout loss on Thursday at the Marriott Center (7 p.m., BYUtv). They’ve already clinched at least a No. 4 seed in the WCC tournament next month, but a win over the Dons would almost clinch the No. 2 seed.
San Francisco at BYU, 7 p.m. MST