Gordon Monson: BYU betrays itself in a huge game that would have made believers out of everyone

The Cougars squandered an 11-point halftime lead in an eventual 68-63 loss at Iowa State.

(Matthew Putney | AP) BYU head coach Mark Pope reacts to a turnover during the second half against Iowa State, Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 68-63

Just when you think this iteration of the BYU Cougars might be not just something different, but something extra-special, something preposterous happened to them — make that something preposterous they did to themselves — on Wednesday night against sixth-ranked Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, a place where the Cyclones hadn’t lost all season.

But that last little complication made what was happening for much of this game that much more extraordinary. The Cougars were dominating, taking a 14-point lead in the second half. And that made what happened thereafter for BYU that much more … what’s the word?

“We’re so incredibly disappointed,” Mark Pope said, afterward.

Before we get to the self-inflicted tragedy, let’s revisit the promising extended run-up. Let’s go way back.

The Cougars had beaten ranked San Diego State early in the season in the Marriott Center. They beat NC State in Vegas. They beat Iowa State in the Marriott. They beat Texas at home. They beat West Virginia and K-State at home. They beat ranked Baylor at home. They beat ranked Kansas where nobody beats the Jayhawks — at Phog’s place. They beat TCU in Provo. All of that and more established BYU as what seemed an authentic anomaly this time around, a surprising one.

But on Wednesday night, what happened next, what was standing in silhouette at the backlit door like Marlene Dietrich in an old black-and-white, puffing away on an opera-length cigarette holder, heel turned, lips puckered, was that big lead against an opponent that is projected to be a 2-seed in the coming NCAA Tournament. The much-improved Cyclones were that kind of team, presenting a ridiculous opportunity for BYU. A chance to show without question that the Cougars really are an outfit that could do what BYU teams haven’t done for a long, long while — stir some magic in March Madness.

Beat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, beat Iowa State where it had won 17 straight games, and that substantiates more than a wild-eyed shot at some future magic making.

But playing like world-beaters in the first half, leading by double-digits early in the second, moving the ball like the Globetrotters and splashing the net from deep, and defending really well on top of all that, and then … blowing your toes off, one by one, transforming victory into defeat, changes the vibe considerably. It appears that BYU is so eager to move the ball that they too often get carried away, get too creative, and the surprise, the astonishment flusters them, causing boneheaded mistakes.

The final count in the hotel special — the Marriott versus the Hilton — was 68-63, for the Cyclones.

It wasn’t so much that BYU lost, it was the way it happened, the way the Cougars let it happen, that lowered their ceiling for the Big Dance.

(Matthew Putney | AP) Iowa State guard Tamin Lipsey (3) pokes the ball away from BYU guard Spencer Johnson (20) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Ames, Iowa.

That’s what seems conclusive when a team like BYU plays the way it did early, and plays the way it did late, suffering, for instance, three straight turnovers in the closing minutes of what was at that time a one-point margin for Iowa State. On what were essentially the last two meaningful possessions of the game, with a win or a tie staring at them, beckoning, guard Dallin Hall, the kid who hit a close-out bomb against Kansas, dribbled the ball out of bounds with seconds remaining. After that, he chucked a scud of a deep shot that caromed way off target, tomahawk-dunking the Cougars’ chances.

It wasn’t just the fumbles, although that’s what Pope said “got us down the stretch.” The Cougars handle the ball as though they were wearing oven mitts, gagging up 17 turnovers in total, against just 13 assists. They also, after being sharp before the break, bricked shot after shot, many of them open, making just 2 of 15 3-point attempts, proving what is well-known regarding clutch play in tough games. Namely, that it’s easier to come from behind the way BYU did against Kansas, when desperation comforts the guys deep in deficit, than it is to demonstrate the confidence necessary to front-run to a triumph after building a lead against a quality team in unfriendly confines.

Instead, BYU played like a team unrelated to the one in the initial half, nor the one the other night in Lawrence. It played like a team that was frightened, a team afraid that it didn’t really belong in that moment, a team that doubted itself on trip after trip. Iowa State is a strong defensive team, but we’re not talking crowded shots that were missed. We’re talking lonely shots that good players should hit. BYU didn’t score over the game’s last four minutes-plus, getting out-pointed by 16 in that second half.

It wasn’t that the Cougars didn’t play hard. They played hard, hit the boards hard. It wasn’t that they weren’t hungry for the win. They were hungry. It was that they lacked the belief, the poise, the touch, required to pull off the extraordinary.

Nobody expected anything close to the extraordinary before this season started, BYU’s first in college basketball’s best league, the Big 12. But the aforementioned, what they had achieved before Wednesday night’s second-half collapse, not only had jacked up expectations, but slapped them hard with the disappointment that comes once the roof has been raised. Hence, Pope’s choice of postgame words.

It’s tricky business, the exceeding of expectations. It lifts a group up, it slams a group down.

Consider the Cougars slammed.

All of that said, the Cougars showed glimpses of what happened later on in the early going. They missed their first five shots, and they were sloppy with the ball. Next thing, though, they settled in, building their large lead and holding it — until the back half of the back half, when it mattered most.

As the Hilton crowd screamed, spit, shook, stomped and carried on in support of its guys, the racket helped the Cyclones and rattled You-Know-Who. It is amazing, really, how home college basketball fans cry for a foul call on every unsuccessful possession, every successful defensive stand by an opponent, conjuring constant outrage. The refs feel it, and on this occasion, the Cougars felt it, allowing it to jangle their nerves.

If BYU and its fans want to look on the bright side, they can focus on the doughnut, not the hole, figuring that if the Cougars are talented enough to push a strong team like Iowa State to the brink of defeat, that’s something worth holding onto. And the Cougars are talented. But the troublesome part is exactly that — they are talented, but do they have the mental strength to consistently win the kind of games that the college postseason requires?

That’s a good question.

The element of surprise is spoken for, it’s confirmed. BYU is good. It deserves praise for being better than anyone expected. But are the Cougars headstrong enough not to undercut themselves when difficult winning is there for the taking? A win was there on Wednesday night, but their weakness of mind betrayed their bodies, betrayed their hands, oven mitts or not, hands that were bloody enough to have grabbed it.

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