BYU’s basketball win at Pepperdine gives Cougars more prep time and a smooth path into WCC semifinals

BYU forward Yoeli Childs (23) is greeted by Kolby Lee as he walks off the court during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Pepperdine on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Malibu, Calif. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Provo • A month ago, Mark Pope touted the importance of February, the time of year when teams have to work through injuries, tiredness and any other adversity to push through for the thought of what March can bring.

Well, the Cougars not only listened, but ended February with a 8-0 record for the first time in program history after defeating Pepperdine 81-64 on Saturday. No. 17 BYU (24-7, 13-3 WCC) ended the regular season on a nine-game winning streak — and it’s paying off.

On Sunday, the Cougars rose up to the No. 10 spot in the NET rankings — the highest ranking this season. Because the NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) ranking system is the key ranking system the NCAA Selection Committee uses, the higher a team is in the NET, the higher the likelihood of earning a higher seed is.

“February is rarely fun, you’re just digging through the mud,” coach Mark Pope said Saturday on the BYU Sports Network post-game show. “[At Pepperdine] it was 100% muddy. There was a ton of times for us to get frustrated sideways and disinterested — there were so many [opportunities]. And that speaks to these young men.”

The Cougars have certainly put themselves in the best position possible, and not just for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, but for the West Coast Conference Tournament next week.

For the first time since joining the WCC, BYU finished solo second in the league and earned its first triple bye, which puts the Cougars one game away from the WCC championship.

“We’re very proud of the way we’ve been able to grow and grow together and work hard every day … but we’re hoping for a lot more firsts,” senior Yoeli Childs said Saturday on the BYU Sports Network post-game interview.

The Cougars will now have nine days off before playing in the WCC semifinals March 9 in Las Vegas. Pope is hoping to use that time to work on some much-needed recovery for some of his players that are a little banged up — Dalton Nixon (ankle), Childs (finger), Connor Harding (knee), Kolby Lee (knee) and Jake Toolson (ankle).

Alex Barcello might also need some time off. The junior took a hard fall at Pepperdine on a breakaway layup and banged his head when he landed.

The fall looked bad enough for Toolson to immediately get up from the bench to go check if his teammate was ok. Unfortunately for Toolson, he was ejected from the game for entering the playing court, but fortunately for the Cougars is not subject to suspension. So, the grad transfer will be able to play in BYU’s next game.

After the game, Pope recognized that he kind of lost his mind over the call to eject Toolson, and it was probably not his finest moment. At the time, he was worried about the ramifications it could have on the final minutes of the game, but afterward was more lighthearted about his player being escorted out of the building.

“So Jake literally was out there, they got him a lounge chair and some suntan lotion,” Pope said. “He took off his jersey. There’s a game going on here and this kid is out there working on his tan. Unbelievable what this Jake Toolson gets done."

BYU women’s basketball earns No. 3 seed in WCC tourney

The Cougars closed out the regular season with two wins to improve to 18-10, 13-5 WCC. BYU finished tied for second place with San Diego in the final league standings, but the Toreros win the tiebreaker. Because BYU split the series with Portland — who finished third in the rankings — and San Diego swept, BYU gets the No. 3 seed. The Cougars earned a double-bye and will look to defend their title when they go into the quarterfinal game on Saturday.

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