Las Vegas • It wasn't what No. 14 BYU wanted, but it could be what was needed.
On Monday, the second-seeded Cougars were eliminated from the West Coast Conference tournament by third-seeded Saint Mary’s in a 51-50 nailbiter. Of course, the ideal situation would have been to play in — and possibly win — the WCC championship game in order to secure the best-possible seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
After falling short, 51-50, to the Gaels, BYU coach Mark Pope said he had no idea how the loss would affect their NCAA tourney chances.
“I hope we're in the tournament somewhere, man,” Pope said. “Let us go play.”
Before their semifinal loss, the Cougars were expected to earn a No. 5 seed. They could possibly drop a rung with the loss, though their overall resume remains strong.
But this loss may give them something more important than a high seed. It might put a little fire in the BYU belly.
More than six weeks ago, the Cougars dropped another heartbreaker. That time, they fell at San Francisco, 83-82, but recovered rather nicely with a nine-game winning streak which included a historic Senior Night victory over Gonzaga in front of a sold-out Marriott Center crowd.
Throughout the regulars season, BYU (24-8, 13-3 WCC) never lost consecutive games. Instead, they’ve always responded with a bounce-back victory, even if it was only for one game.
“They've rung the bell every time this year,” Pope said. “Last time we suffered a loss, we ran off nine straight with some epic wins. I trust this group. I think that it's a player-led group [with] unbelievable leadership. We don't have any choice but to do that now.”
Pope called Monday night’s loss disappointing — one that surely continued to hurt in the hours after the final buzzer and into the next day. Part of what made the game disappointing is the fact that BYU led by as many as 11 points early in the second half.
Of the Cougars' eight losses this season, six came by seven points or less. Three were decided in overtime and two other games were decided by a single point in regulation.
Yet, the loss to Saint Mary's came from BYU failing to do what it had grown to be known for this season: shooting.
The Cougars’ normally efficient offense was basically torn apart by the Gaels. BYU only made six field goals in the second half, and was actually unable to make any shots for a nine-minute period. One of the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams also only went 7 of 18 from deep throughout the whole game.
And in a game that was decided by a single point, BYU fared worse from the charity stripe than Saint Mary’s did. The Cougars made just 60% of their free throws, while the Gaels shot 75%. There’s your game, right there.
“I think that, at the end of the day, this is going to help us and it’s going to make us better,” senior Yoeli Childs said. “Postseason basketball, you’re allowed to play a lot more physical. I guess we just weren’t ready for that tonight on the offensive end. We’re going to take that, learn from it and prepare for the next one.”
Pope believes that his Cougars have worked hard enough this year to earn an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, and knows they won't take that chance lightly.
The Cougars will have another week off to get everything in place to try to bounce back from this disappointing loss.
“We’ve been great at writing a story,” Pope said. “So, the story we have to write is that this devastating loss, the poor coaching performance, not the best performance we’ve had on the court — that will springboard us to doing something special that these guys have been dreaming their whole lives about doing. That’s the story we have to write. It’s the only story we have left to write.”