How BYU men’s basketball overcame NCAA Tournament disappointment to advance in NIT

Caleb Lohner scores 20 as BYU men’s basketball explodes in second half to beat Long Beach State, 93-72

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Caleb Lohner (33) goes for a layup during a game between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Long Beach State 49ers in the Marriott Center on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Provo • For the first 20 minutes, the BYU men’s basketball team looked as though it didn’t want to be in the Marriott Center. Like it didn’t want to be playing Long Beach State. Like it didn’t want to be playing for a National Invitation Tournament championship.

And, in a way, that was all true.

“I think to us, this game in a lot of our minds, emotionally, just wasn’t as important because we didn’t expect to be here,” sophomore forward Caleb Lohner said.

The team turned the ball over too much, fouled too much. Senior guard Alex Barcello went scoreless. And even though BYU had the advantage in some key statistics, it was a largely forgettable and regrettable first half.

But that all changed after halftime. The Cougars stopped turning the ball over and stopped fouling. They started playing defense and making shots.

And before someone could say “Cougar Tail,” BYU was on its way to a 93-72 win over Long Beach to advance to the second round of the NIT, where the Cougars will play Northern Iowa at home on Saturday at 7 p.m.

The turnaround, though, wasn’t attributed to a game plan adjustment, or a vociferous halftime speech. It was a simple realization that the Cougars needed to accept the cards they’d been dealt and get back to having fun playing basketball.

“I think at a point in that part of the game, it just kind of clicked,” Lohner said. “Everyone was looking at each other differently. ... We just did the right things to help us win. I think at the beginning of the game, some of that wasn’t completely there.”

Lohner scored a career-high 20 points to lead the Cougars, who lost in the quarterfinal round of the West Coast Conference Tournament 10 days ago. Gideon George scored 16 points, and Alex Barcello added 14 after going scoreless in the first half. Trevin Knell had 10 points off the bench.

BYU took a brief one-point lead in the second half, gave it up on the next possession, then went on a 8-0 run behind Barcello and Lohner. Later in the half, with the game tied, the Cougars scored 21 straight points and never looked back.

Coach Mark Pope also acknowledged that the Cougars have been fighting to overcome the emotional letdown of not getting chosen to compete in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think we’re all working on our emotions right now,” Pope said.

But the Cougars lived to fight another day. They grew accustomed to the pressure defense Long Beach State employed for much of the game and took advantage, which felt like analogous to how the Cougars pushed through their disappointment.

“Right now, we have to love the game,” Pope said. “Loving the game shouldn’t be hard.”

And it seems like Lohner and the Cougars rediscovered that love in real time Wednesday. Lohner said it felt fun to see how the entire team shared the ball and played for one another.

BYU wants to use that love to push them forward in the NIT.

“We just want to play more,” Lohner said.