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BYU has stayed COVID-19-free all season. It’s critical now that the Cougars stay that way.

With the NCAA Tournament a couple of weeks away, the window keeps closing. The Cougars know they can’t afford to have an outbreak.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Brigham Young University’s starting lineups are announced before a game between the BYU Cougars and the Saint Mary’s College of California Gaels held at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

Provo • Last fall, it was unclear if the basketball season would even take place. There was so much uncertainty surrounding athletics as there was a surge in COVID-19 cases all around the country.

But programs found a way to have a season and now the postseason is starting.

Most surprising, in a league that saw multiple teams having to pause team activities due to COVID-19 outbreaks, BYU never had to halt operations throughout the season.

In fact, the Cougars played 24 games — tied with Gonzaga as the teams in the West Coast Conference with most games played. Five other teams (San Francisco, Pepperdine, Saint Mary’s, Loyola Marymount and Portland) managed to play 20 games or more, while three teams (Santa Clara, Pacific and San Diego) weren’t even able to reach 20 games.

The Toreros were the most impacted, having played only 13 games in the 2020-21 season.

Following last week’s game against San Francisco, BYU coach Mark Pope had some choice words about the upcoming postseason.

“We’re not letting COVID take another tournament from us — it can’t happen,” he said.

Pope afterwards half-jokingly feared he had jinxed the Cougars’ postseason chances with that statement.

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” he said. “I’m going to be losing sleep until Selection Sunday.”

But can you blame him?

Last season, the Cougars were poised to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years, but everything was canceled due to the pandemic, which was still fairly new around much of the United States at the time.

With the season cut short, BYU couldn’t let another tournament be taken away. So, it did everything it possibly could to prevent it from happening.

It may have helped that pretty much the whole team contracted COVID-19 back in August, but the players also put in the work during the season to not catch the virus a second time.

Senior Alex Barcello believes luck may have played a factor into how the Cougars were able to prevent any type of pause on their end, but, at the start of the season, the team had set out to play as many games as possible, win a conference championship and make a run at the NCAA Tournament.

“I think the guys have really taken that upon themselves and taken it upon us as a whole to be mature on and off the court,” Barcello said. “When we’re not here in practice or we’re not going to class, for the guys that do have in-person classes, we just go to our houses. Sometimes, I think a couple of guys go out to eat every now and then, but for the most part we’re pretty locked down.”

The motivation wasn’t necessarily from the coaches — the players came up with it on their own.

WCC TOURNAMENT

The WCC Men’s Basketball Tournament begins Thursday in Las Vegas. Second-seeded BYU won’t play until late Monday (10 p.m. MT), in the semifinals against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.

Throughout the team meetings, the players often discussed their goals and how to best reach them. That included taking COVID-19 precautions.

Barcello also felt like the Cougars weren’t expected to do as well this year because of the talent it lost from last season’s squad (you know, Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson and TJ Haws). The Cougars knew it was going to be a challenge, but they focused week to week on keeping their season safe from being canceled.

Second-seeded BYU is set to play in the WCC semifinal on Monday at 10 p.m., against an opponent that is still yet to be determined (but is looking like it will either be between Pepperdine or Pacific). A win in the semis would not only send the Cougars to the WCC Championship game, but could help them in the seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

“Every game that we had, we were only focused on that one game,” Barcello said. “We didn’t focus on what game came after or what game came next week — we were just present in the moment. And this whole group has grown so much over this season. And, like I said before, business isn’t done. We still [have] a lot of games left to play.”

After the season finale last Saturday against Saint Mary’s, Pope acknowledged how important it will be for his Cougars to continue to be safe as the NCAA Tournament approaches. With the tournament a couple of weeks away, the window to be able to deal with a positive case among the team is continuously closing on them.

He was set to have a discussion with his team this week about just how crucial these next couple of weeks are.

“I’m fine shipping these guys off into federal prison isolation cells or whatever — we’ve got to find someway to keep them safe,” Pope said. “And I know these guys want it just as bad as we all do. So, they’re going to be very careful and we’re going to be very prayerful.”

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