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BYU is a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but a higher seed is within grasp in Las Vegas

(Ringo H.W. Chiu | AP file photo) 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.

BYU is on the verge of something magical.

But before the No. 15 Cougars can make their return to the NCAA Tournament, where some commentators believe BYU can make a deep run, they have the West Coast Conference basketball tournament. And a pair of wins in Sin City would definitely boost their resume and improve their chances at a higher seed.

After earning a triple bye, the second-seeded Cougars will make their debut in the conference tourney in Monday’s semifinal against No. 3 Saint Mary’s at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

While BYU may need to shake some rust off after not playing for the past eight days, there shouldn’t be any issue with concentration. All season, the Cougars have bought into the mentality that the next game is the biggest game of the season, regardless of the opponent.

Coach Mark Pope said he’s well aware that it’s a sporting cliché, but that’s the way they’ve worked.

“We just know that Monday is the biggest game we’ve ever played, just like last Saturday was the biggest game before that,” Pope said. “... And I’ve kind of repeated that all season because we’re fighting really hard to stay in that mind frame. Clearly, [the players] understand it. We’re in a pretty good position right now, but that’s just in the background kind of noise. This team, I think they felt the successes you can have when you focus 100% on the next game. So, I think they’re getting more and more committed to living there.”

While the Cougars try not to plan past the next game, they also couldn’t properly plan for who’d they be playing in the semifinals.

Saint Mary’s was able to advance into the semis in a Saturday nightcap that went into double overtime. The Gaels outlasted Pepperdine 89-82 in a game that saw each team’s top scorer completely dominate.

The Waves’ Colbey Ross put up the second-most WCC tournament points (43) en route to a heartbreaking, season-ending loss, while Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford dropped 42 points (third most in WCC tourney history).

Although the Cougars got into Las Vegas early, they didn’t hold practice on Sunday. So they haven’t had any live practice since learning who they’d play.

Pope said they had their hunches over who they would face, but his Cougars still had to prepare for any of the four opponents who could have made their way to the semis. With the Gaels advancing, Ford will definitely be on BYU’s radar now.

The last time BYU took on Saint Mary’s was in last month’s 81-79 victory in Provo. The Cougars held Ford to 18 points, but Malik Fitts stepped up to score a team-high 29 points to give BYU some trouble.

While the Cougars went back to working on their fundamentals this past week, senior Jake Toolson was hopeful after Thursday’s practice that BYU’s fresh legs will serve as an advantage.

“On Monday, the team we play will have already played a game,” Toolson said. “I'm not really worried about that because this team has shown that we are ready to go and ready to fight every game. It's just different. It's a different part of the season, and for a lot of us it's a new chapter in a season that we haven't seen before. We're excited to get better and we really want to make the most of it.”

Since joining the WCC in 2011, BYU has never won the conference tournament. The Cougars have found themselves in the championship game three times — most recently in 2018 — and all against Gonzaga.

Winning the conference title has been high on the Cougars’ list of goals for this season, and their work throughout the season has put them one game away from vying for it.

“Like we always say, our No. 1 goal is to get better every day,” senior Yoeli Childs said. “And we know that if we can accomplish that goal, all our other goals will come. So, that’s our main focus right now. … As we continue to get better every day, we’re going to come in on Monday a better team than we are today and be ready to accomplish those other goals that we have.”


BYU vs. Saint Mary’s

At Orleans Arena, Las Vegas

Tipoff » Monday, 9:30 p.m. MDT

TV » ESPN2

Radio » 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius 143.

Records » BYU 24-7, 13-3; SMC 25-7, 11-5

All-time series » Tied 15-15

Last meeting » BYU 81, SMC 79 (Feb. 1, 2020)

About BYU » No. 15 BYU is on a nine-game win streak and finished second in the WCC to earn the No. 2 seed and a triple bye into the semifinals. ... Seniors Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws and Jake Toolson earned All-WCC First Team recognition and Toolson was named Newcomer of the Year. It was the first time BYU has had three All-WCC First Team honorees since joining the league. ... Coach Mark Pope has been selected as one of 10 coaches running for the 2020 Werner Ladder Naismith Men’s Coach of the Year Award.

About SMC » Saint Mary’s finished the WCC in third place and entered the WCC Tournament in the quarterfinals, beating Pepperdine in double overtime to advance to the semis. ... The Gaels were led by leading scorer Jordan Ford, who scored a career-best 42 points on 17 of 30 overall shooting. ... Ford played all 50 minutes of the contest and has played more minutes (1218:29) than any other player in Division I.

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