Las Vegas • BYU’s Yoeli Childs missed his jump shot with 30 seconds left. Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford made his, with 1.4 seconds remaining.
And just like that, the Gaels beat the Cougars 51-50 Monday night at Orleans Arena and will move on to Tuesday’s WCC Tournament championship game against No. 2 Gonzaga.
BYU couldn’t get out of its own way and struggled to score in losing for the first time in its last 10 games. And the Cougars, who played Monday for the first time in over a week, will now get to wait nearly another week for Selection Sunday and their NCAA Tournament destination.
There was no mystery about the semifinal loss as far as BYU coach Mark Pope was concerned.
“I’m really happy for those guys [Saint Mary’s] — they earned it,” Pope said. “They fought and battled all night long in a tough environment. ... Saint Mary’s did a great job being physical with us and turned up the tempo defensively, and we couldn’t really respond."
Just as BYU’s season started surrounded by a cloud of adversity, it was only fitting that the Cougars dealt with another dose as they started their postseason. Shortly after BYU took the court to start warming up for their West Coast Conference Tournament debut, it was announced Kolby Lee would not available to play.
SAINT MARY’S 51, BYU 50
• No. 14 BYU leads by as many as 11, but drops WCC semifinal to third-seeded Saint Mary’s.
• Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford comes alive in the second half, scores 18 to send the Gaels to the conference championship game.
• Cougars held to 37% shooting as Saint Mary’s snaps BYU’s nine-game winning streak.
The sophomore was unable to practice the last week due to symptoms that included nausea, vomiting and mild dehydration, and wasn’t even seen on the court for the game. But, just as they have all season, the Cougars adjusted their lineup.
With Dalton Nixon still out due to injury (ankle), sophomore Gavin Baxter recorded his first start of the season in Lee’s place. He, of course, has his own lengthy injury history.
Baxter suffered a torn labrum during a preseason practice and opted to undergo shoulder surgery for the chance to come back this season. The 6-foot-9 forward first made his return Feb. 8, when BYU hosted San Francisco, and had recorded a total of 44 minutes over the last six games. On Monday, Baxter got BYU going early in what would end up being a tight contest throughout.
“Gavin’s been making progress the last several weeks and he got a good week of practice in, and I thought he actually played well tonight,” Pope said. “He really competed and was diligent on the defensive end and really helped us in a lot of ways. Surely, we missed the depth that Kolby offers us, but everybody is banged up by this point in the season. So, it’s just about rising up and overcoming that.”
It was a sloppy start. In the first nine minutes alone, BYU turned over the ball seven times. The Cougars’ saving grace? Their defense.
The Cougars held the Gaels to 28.6% shooting for the half, and at one point, BYU forced two consecutive shot clock violations.
The Cougars shot over 50 percent in the first half, but led just 26-20 at the half, thanks largely to their own turnovers.
BYU continued to pull away in the second half and led by as many as 11. Then Ford got into the act, scoring 12 of his 18 points in the second half — including eight during a 12-0 Saint Mary’s run that completely flipped the script.
The Cougars went scoreless for more than six minutes until Yoeli Childs was able to go 1 of 2 from the foul line. It took another three minutes after that for BYU to finally get a field goal, when Zac Seljaas scored on a put-back (and got the and-one), but BYU’s lead was down to 48-46 with just 3:31 left in the game.
Another Cougar turnover (BYU would end with 15) would prove costly down the stretch, but BYU’s 24% shooting from the field and that long scoreless stretch ultimately sealed the deal.
Ford’s pull-up jumper off of a final Saint Mary’s timeout finished the Cougars off.
“They did a good job of taking us out of what we normally do, what we want to do,” senior Jake Toolson said. “They were very physical with us and made us play one-on-one and then took the ball from us. Moving forward, we need to share the ball and play with more force to get those shots that we’ve gotten all season long. I think this will help us moving forward.”
Childs led the Cougars with 23 points and 10 rebounds, but couldn’t get his jumper with 30 seconds left to go down, which also came off a timeout.
He also didn’t have a lot of help, for the first time in awhile. Toolson added 11 points, but no other Cougar scored more than five.
While the Cougars played their last game nine days ago, Childs doesn’t believe the time off was a factor in the way they played on Monday, but did feel the Cougars weren’t ready for what the Gaels dished out.
“Clearly we just weren’t prepared for the nature of the game today,” Childs said. “Saint Mary’s was tougher than us, they’re more physical than us and I think they really got us out of our stuff. Moving forward, we’ll play with more force. We’ll be more aggressive and we’ll prepare to move through that contact and get to our spots and play the right way.”