Provo • Southern Utah had not stepped foot in the Marriott Center since Dec. 21, 2007, but returned to Provo on Wednesday night to continue its series against BYU. The Thunderbirds were coming off their best win in years after beating Nebraska on the road in double overtime and hoped to get their first win — ever — against the Cougars.
Well, they’re just going to keep waiting.
BYU held off a second-half SUU comeback — and even had to make a small rally of its own — to best the Thunderbirds 68-63.
Jake Toolson, who led the Cougars with 22 points, wasn’t aware that BYU won its 12th straight game against SUU in the series. All he knew was that the Thunderbirds were going to come to Provo wanting a win.
“We knew it was going to be a fight — that’s a good team over there and they play hard,” Toolson said. “We knew it was going to be a fight, just like it is every single night. That was our mindset coming into the game.”
The victory improved BYU to 2-1 after a disappointing loss to San Diego State last Friday and handed SUU (2-1) its first loss of the season.
BYU coach Mark Pope said in-state games, like the one against SUU, are awesome and matter. Those games sometimes put just a tad bit more fire onto his players, because you’re competing against someone from down the road.
“I’m super happy for our guys that they were able to gut it out and grit through it and figure out some answers at the end,” Pope said. “It’s a great win for us.”
After SUU put up the first points of the game, Dalton Nixon hit a 3-pointer to give the Cougars the lead — one that they would hold on for the remainder of the half. While Nixon only made one 3-pointer all of last season, the senior has made at least one 3-pointer in all three games so far this season.
The Cougars led by as many as 10 points in the first half thanks to their 3-point shooting. BYU went 5 for 8 from beyond the arc to lead 36-31 at the half.
Five minutes into the second half, the Thunderbirds tied the game, 43-43, on back-to-back steals that led to breakaway shots and eventually took the lead on a 13-3 run.
But the Cougars regained the lead later, on an Alex Barcello jumper in the middle of a 14-4 run. Although SUU would keep it close throughout the remainder of the game, BYU wouldn’t give up the lead again. The Thunderbirds scored only 13 points in the final 13:25 minutes of play.
Even though the Cougars were never able to pull away and struggled at times, Toolson said they will continue to learn from their wins, as they learn from their losses.
“We learned that we can respond,” Toolson said. “We can win ugly games. We can win frustrating games. We can fight. We can win together. Guys are going to step up. We learned a lot about our team tonight and, I think going forward, we’re just going to keep doing what we can.”
When TJ Haws found himself in foul trouble, the senior guard was sent to the bench and Pope looked to Evan Troy to step up. In the first two games, Troy had played a total of 11 minutes and scored two points.
On Wednesday, the walk-on senior scored seven points and got a board in almost nine minutes of play.
Pope said Troy also showed toughness on defense, transitioning well guarding different players.
“When you look at him, you would not assume he’s going to be the defensive stop, but he was fantastic tonight,” Pope said.
Three Cougars finished in double digits. Toolson led with 22 points, while Nixon had 13 and Haws added 10.
SUU shot 50% from the field while BYU made only 38% of its shots, but the Thunderbirds failed to make any 3-pointers in 12 attempts.
“[The Thunderbirds] are athletic and long, they spread you out a little bit and they’re really talented – they’re tough to guard one on one,” Pope said.
“And they’re not going to shoot 0 for 12 ever again. They’ll make some shots.”
BYU will play its first road game of the season Friday at Houston. Although Toolson wasn’t part of last year’s squad that suffered a 76-62 loss at home, he said the team is hungry to avenge that loss at Houston.
“I think guys are excited for an opportunity for another shot at those guys and we’re just going to be road warriors and keep doing what we do,” Toolson said.