Provo • Belief.
That was coach Mark Pope’s response when asked for a word to describe his Cougars. The first-year coach believes that at the heart of athletics is faith. Players believe in your teammates. They put their faith in the staff. They have faith in the work they put in every single day.
“You can put all that work in and you can not get results, and a lot of times you feel like you're not getting results,” Pope said. “And you have to have faith and sticking with it every single day, despite the setbacks.”
Luckily for the Cougars, the work — and belief — did pay off this time.
For the first time since starting West Coast Conference play, BYU was able to close out with two wins in a single week. And they did it at home, bringing up their home-court win streak to 11 as the Cougars improved to a 17-7 record on the season and 6-3 conference record.
BYU hasn’t lost at home since Nov. 9 against San Diego State, which is the lone undefeated team in the country.
On Thursday, the Cougars’ defense lacked at times, but their superb offense led them to score a season-high 107 points in an eventual rout of Pepperdine. On Saturday, BYU battled it out with Saint Mary’s in a grueling match that was decided in the final seconds of the game — with a TJ Haws game-winning 3-pointer — to even the series with the Gaels.
Saturday’s game proved to be BYU’s biggest win at home so far this season. It once again sparked NCAA Tournament whisperings.
SMC came to Provo on a four-game winning streak, but left without the result the Gaels wanted. Now, BYU and SMC are tied for second place in the WCC rankings.
“We’re just trying to play as good as we can,” Pope said. “I don’t know if it helps us metrics-wise or what, [but] I think it helps us in the conference. It leaves us in a place, where we’re still in a place to fight in this conference, which gets me very excited. And we protected home court, which is so important.”
What helped the Cougars get the much-needed win was the sixth man: Cougar Nation. BYU saw a season-best 15,212 fans in attendance, which made for a postseason atmosphere in the Marriott Center.
Pope said the team was really grateful for those in attendance because they played a huge role in his Cougars getting the win.
“If I had the time, I would write each one of them a hand-written thank you note, but I'm a slow writer,” Pope said.
It also helped to have consistent shooting from Yoeli Childs throughout the week’s two games. Childs scored 21 points against the Waves and 19 points against the Gaels on a combined 19 of 27 shooting from the field.
Jake Toolson and Haws each played different roles in each game. Haws scored a modest 12 points in Thursday’s win on 3 of 7 shooting, but also made six assists and had a steal, while Toolson pumped out 25 points on 9 of 13 shooting and had five assists and two steals.
On Saturday, Toolson managed only eight points but helped out with a team-high eight assists and two blocks — one of which prevented the Gaels from getting a nine-point lead and instead cut the Cougars’ deficit to four points. Haws led the scoring with 23 points and added five assists and one steal.
During his final shot, which lead the Cougars to victory, he wasn't thinking so much about the men he was sharing the court with. Instead, the shot was for someone he couldn't wait to meet.
After Saturday’s game, Haws and his wife, Lauren, checked into the hospital to start the inducement process and hopefully give birth to their son on Sunday.
“To be honest, my son went through my mind,” Haws said. “I’ve just been thinking about this whole experience all day and right after I hit that shot I was like, ‘That’s for you, man.’”
Up next, the Cougars will travel to Portland — an opponent they beat handily earlier this season — and then come back home to host San Francisco, which could prove to be a bit of a problem.
BYU has lost three straight to the Dons, who even gave conference leader Gonzaga a bit of trouble on Saturday. But if the Cougars can break their recent curse against San Francisco, they should be in a great spot to close out the regular season.