Slow starts doom BYU’s NCAA Tournament run to an early exit against Duquesne

Jaxson Robinson’s 25 points weren’t enough to rally the Cougars past the Dukes.

(Charlie Neibergall | AP) BYU guard Spencer Johnson (20) sits on the floor after being fouled in the first half of a first-round college basketball game against Duquesne in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb.

Omaha, Neb. • Spencer Johnson gazed into a corner of the CHI Health Center and couldn’t locate the answers. None of the Cougars could.

Johnson sat in the post-game news conference next to head coach Mark Pope and teammate Jaxson Robinson, who also didn’t know why BYU started both halves so slow.

They came to Omaha forged by eight conference losses in the fires of the Big 12 that sent eight teams into the NCAA Tournament. Their grand analytical experiment yielded unquestionable success. The Cougars made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons.

But slow starts doomed them to an early exit. BYU scored four points or fewer in the first 5 minutes of each half and fell behind by as much as 14 points in the second half. The Cougars rallied to tie Duquesne with less than 2 minutes left but couldn’t close. Duquesne beat BYU on Thursday, 71-67, in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament for the Dukes’ first tourney win since 1969.

Pope witnessed his team that endured its conference gauntlet and arrived in Omaha with confidence shoot 22 of 57 (38.6%) from the floor. He urged their fight to erase a 14-point deficit. Then he consoled them when it wasn’t enough.

“Just a devastating day for us, for sure,” Pope said. “It’s devastating because we lost. It’s devastating because we won’t move on. And mostly it’s devastating because we don’t get to get in the gym together again.”

Pope also dealt his congratulations and credit to Duquesne, whose relentless defense and unyielding physicality stretched the Cougars to the horn. BYU scored just two free throws in its first 10 possessions. The Cougars started 0 of 8 from the field until Robinson knocked down a 3 from the corner more than 6 minutes into the game.

(John Peterson | AP) BYU head coach Mark Pope talks with guard Jaxson Robinson (2) in the second half of a first-round college basketball game against Duquesne in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb.

The reigning Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year also served as the team’s catalyst on Thursday. He scored 13 of his game-high 25 points in the first half, shooting 3-of-6 from distance in the opening frame. He scored eight of BYU’s first 10 points despite coming off the bench, the first two coming on free throws 5 minutes and 8 seconds into the game.

Robinson answered the bell when his team needed it. While Duquesne’s offense also struggled, standout guard Dae Dae Grant knocked down a 3 midway through the first half to make it a 10-point game. Robinson immediately answered with a distance jumper. That sparked a 4-minute run that ended in a 3 from Spencer Johnson that gave the Cougars their only lead—20-19 with 7:26 left in the first half.

“My teammates were finding me open shots,” Robinson said afterward. “Dallin (Hall) did a great job of just being a facilitator. He’s been there all season for us.”

(Charlie Neibergall | AP) The BYU bench celebrates after guard Jaxson Robinson (2) hit a three-point basket against Duquesne in the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb.

Hall embodied the game’s physicality as much as anyone. He took an errant arm to the face early, forcing the refs to halt action. Trainers ushered him off the court to stop his bleeding. The sophomore returned with both nostrils plugged.

Then, 17 seconds into the second half, the game’s physicality elevated. Grant, Duquesne’s senior guard, and Johnson, BYU’s resolute senior, went to the floor intertwined for a rebound. Neither wanted to let go. Tempers flared as they separated. Coaches kept players from clearing both benches while both were ultimately dealt technical fouls.

“I think the little scuffle at the beginning of the second half kind of showed everything about what we’re about,” Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot said afterward. “We’re going to compete at a very high level in a very clean way, but we’re going to compete and make people earn every inch of the court.”

Dambrot also said the game’s final score indicated exactly how the Dukes won. He spent the week scouting to stop BYU’s slips and back cuts. That’s exactly what Duquesne did. As a result, BYU fought through hard screens and outstretched arms for 40 minutes.

Pope rallied his team with 16:44 remaining, down by 14. Robinson drove the lane with the ball cradled away from contact for a layup. Richie Saunders similarly plowed through the lane with the ball in tow on the following possession.

(Charlie Neibergall | AP) BYU guard Richie Saunders (15) walks off the court after a 71-67 loss to Duquesne in a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb.

Potential big-time 3s from Saunders and Hall didn’t fall amid the Cougars’ charge, so they returned to the paint. Robinson drove the paint to cut the lead to 6. Then again to make it a 3-point game. BYU eventually tied it with back-to-back layups from Fousseyni Traore. All eyes on the final 2 minutes.

“Our guys battled back and responded and it turned into a terrific, you know, NCAA Tournament game, and we came out on the short end of it,” Pope said after. “But not for lake of togetherness or effort or competitiveness or trying or poise. We just – we just lost.”

Duquesne took control from there. Standout guard Jimmy Clark III scored the next 5 points to finish with 11. Grant knocked down four straight free throws to finish with 19 points, a team-high for Duquesne. Freshman big Jakub Necas, who hadn’t played more than 20 minutes this season, nearly played 30 minutes for the Dukes on way to career highs in points (12), rebounds (six) and blocks (three). Potentially none bigger than the two free throws with 18 seconds left to extend the lead to five, insurmountable at that point.

The horn sounded and the final run ended for BYU. Johnson called his career as a Cougar “an absolute dream.” He thanked individuals, coaches, administrators and all those who impacted him for his career in Provo. After struggling to find words for the Cougars’ shooting woes, he also admitted there weren’t any words to describe what the program means to him.

(Charlie Neibergall | AP) BYU guard Dallin Hall (30) goes over Duquesne guard Jimmy Clark III (1) as they go for a loose ball in the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb.

Robinson called Johnson “the ultimate leader.” The Cougars’ locker room wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to lead them, he said. Robinson also thanked Pope for mentoring him and taking a chance on him.

The Ada, Oklahoma, native said he wants to make the NCAA Tournament again next year. “I’m already thinking about it,” he said. Then, amid heavy feelings and the abrupt end to something years in the making, Pope wrapped his right arm around Robinson.

“We can make that happen right now,” Pope told him.