BYU can’t hang with San Diego State on the glass, falls to Aztecs, 76-71

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard TJ Haws (30) as BYU hosts Northwestern State, NCAA basketball at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday Nov. 13, 2018.

Provo • San Diego State entered the Marriott Center with two things: the best offensive rebounding basketball team in the nation (albeit after one game) and a proverbial shovel. The Aztecs used both to bury BYU and their longstanding string of hard luck in Provo with a 76-71 nonconference victory Saturday afternoon.

“This is an opportunity for us to get better so we have to grow from this,” said senior Jake Toolson, who led BYU with 18 points, four assists and four rebounds. “It sucks, but it can help us. You just have to have that mindset.”

The game marked the anniversary of perhaps the most momentous game ever played at the Marriott Center. When these two teams met here In 2011, Jimmer Fredette scored 43 points to help the then No. 9-ranked Cougars hand the undefeated Aztecs, ranked No. 4 entering the game and led by future NBA star Kawhi Leonard, their first loss of the season, 71-58. To be fair, the Cougars also got outrebounded in that game, 42-35, but their 44.4% shooting for the game more than made up for it.

That wasn’t the case eight years later, when the Aztecs notched just their fourth win in 30 games in Provo. BYU was outrebounded 43-27 for the game, including some key times down the final stretch. That plus 36.4% shooting in the first half and 33.3% 3-point shooting for the game resulted in the first loss of the young season for the Cougars (1-1).

SDSU (2-0) notched 26 offensive rebounds in its opening win over Texas Southern, putting it atop the NCAA leaderboard in that category. It had 15 against BYU, compared to four for the Cougars, and scored 14 points on second-chance shots.

Some of the disparity can be attributed to the Cougars’ shorter starting lineup. SDSU had two 6-foot-10 players in its lineup. BYU had none taller than 6-9 center Kolby Lee, a sophomore who has been thrown into the starting lineup while Yoeli Childs serves a nine-game suspension.

“For us to become a great team with our diminutive size, we have to find a way to rebound the ball with a mob mentality,” first-year coach Mark Pope said.

The Cougars found a way to do just that at the start of the second half. During a five-minute run, everything started going right for BYU. The Cougars went on a 21-3 run, including a stretch where they outrebounded the Aztecs 6-3, to take a 52-43 lead, their biggest of the game.

“We were just stuck. It was like we were in molasses, we were in mud,” Pope said of his team’s offensive output in the first half. “For our guys to actually come out and find an answer? It’s inspiring. I love it. This freaking Zac Seljaas man, how beautiful is this kid, right? He just wants to go play. I just wish he had 10 fouls.”

Seljaas, a senior guard, broke his foot during the team’s tour of Italy in August and returned to the team just in time for BYU’s opening win over Cal State Fullerton. He took and missed his only shot of the first half, when the Cougars entered the locker room trailing 36-29. He gave BYU new life to start the second, however, when he made all three of his shots in the first five minutes, including back-to-back 3-pointers.

Seljaas didn’t make another attempt, however, finishing with eight points, three rebounds and two steals when he fouled out with 2:07 to play. The Cougars didn’t do themselves any favors by missing six straight attempts before Tolson drilled a 3 to give them some breathing room, 57-52, with 8:37 to play. In the meantime, the Aztecs started whittling away the gap behind guards Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel. Mitchell had nine points, including two made free throws that put the Aztecs up for good at 70-69 with 1:26 left. Schakel led all scorers with 19 points on 5-of-7 shooting behind the arc — all of which came in the second half. Nathan Mensah made 11 rebounds, more than twice as many as any Cougar.

BYU’s TJ Haws scored 13, and Alex Barcello added 11. Dalton Nixon paced the Cougars on the boards with five.

The team hopes to use the loss as motivation moving forward. BYU’s next chance is Wednesday when Southern Utah comes to the Marriott Center at 7 p.m.

“Were motivated from that to show them that we’re here and we’re not giving up. We want to win,” Seljaas said. “That’s every game from here on out. We want to win and we’re not giving up no matter what.”