LAS VEGAS — BYU went the final six minutes of regulation without a point Monday night, costing itself an eight-point lead.

By the stroke of midnight Pacific time, though, five extra minutes were worth it.

The Cougars advanced to Tuesday's West Coast Conference championship game with a 79-77 overtime win against San Francisco. It's their first time in the finals in three seasons.

"It's one of those wins where you just take it as a group and be thankful for the great plays that were made by our guys," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "Then just kind of move on."

And fast.

BYU will play top-seeded Gonzaga, which easily handled No. 4 Saint Mary's in the earlier contest at Orleans Arena. The game will be at 6 p.m. PST on ESPN.

BYU won for the first time in three overtime games this year, after losing at then-ranked Oregon in December and in late January at Portland.

The general national-pundit thought was that BYU needed to reach the finals of the conference tournament to feel good about its chances of receiving an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. The Cougars are 23-10 and have won six in a row and 9-of-10.

It's all up for debate until Selection Sunday this weekend, unless BYU beats Gonzaga for an automatic bid. The Cougars haven't gone to March Madness that way since 2001.

But it remains to be seen how the Cougars can recover on such short notice to face the Bulldogs — remember how that went a couple nights after the heartbreaker at Portland.

But BYU celebrated darn near like it won the conference tournament after withholding San Francisco. Anson Winder's 1-of-2 at the foul line with 8.4 seconds produced the two-point lead which stood after the Dons missed a wild, off-balance 3-pointer and a tip-in attempt right near the buzzer.

USF players dropped to the floor.

BYU players ran all over the Orleans Arena floor, including freshman center Eric Mika and assistant coach Mark Pope chest-bumping like sumo wrestlers a few times.

"I was exhausted," Kyle Collinsworth said after making two critical overtime free throws, between chugs of water and sports drink at the 10-minute post-game media session. "It was good to be able to catch my breath."

It didn't seem at all like BYU defeated a team for the third time this year, which actually happened.

USF is 0-5 combined against the Cougars and first-place Gonzaga, despite finishing in a second-place tie during the regular season with the Cougars.

USF coach Rex Walters continued to express support in his team and its status, even if his pre-game boast that he had the best team in the league is all for naught now.

"There may be a lot of Mormons mad at me," Walters said, also teasing himself for being generally outspoken. "But I don't give a rat's you-know-what about what the state of Utah thinks about me. ...They won the game tonight. They deserved it. They played better tonight. But like I told my guys, I wouldn't trade one of my guys for any other player in this tournament. Not one. I haven't always felt that way, to be quite honest...this is a neat group."

Rose would say the same about his Cougars.

They've played in a fragile postseason position for weeks. The Feb. 13 defeat at Pacific threatened to steer the season again to the NIT.

BYU's recovered, winning the last six — with some really memorable ones along the way. Winning at Saint Mary's. Winning at home against Gonzaga. Surviving at San Diego to end the regular season. Now this.

Matt Carlino had a sizzling second half (all 11 points) and plenty of other Cougars offset a 5-of-19 performance from Tyler Haws, who struggled to find his rhythm even during BYU's hot start. Walters lamented that BYU's best scorer was afforded 14 free throws, making them all, to finish with a game-high 24 points.

Collinsworth had 18 points, including making his only two free-throw attempts with 24.8 seconds left in overtime to create a 76-73 lead.

"I knew I had to make them," said Collinsworth, a notoriously iffy foul shooter. "I knew I was going to make them. I just thought of my teammates and the confidence they had in me."

That mojo spread around for 45 minutes.

Eric Mika was back in the starting lineup, play more physical than he had in a few weeks (11 points, 10 rebounds).

Anson Winder continues to play splendid basketball in his home city (15 points, five rebounds).

The Cougars scored the first eight points, but Haws — BYU's most productive scorer — even missed a couple shots and had a turnover during the opening stages.

Though it wasn't one of those games that USF was going to fade that fast.

"We just hadn't been on that stage before," Walters said of the slow start.

It was out to prove it belong at the top tier of the 10-team WCC.

It wasn't a certifiably easy task.

But besides winning both meetings, there was this BYU edge: It went 5-1 against the other teams that made up the top-4 of the standings.

USF went 1-5 against Gonzaga, the Cougars and Saint Mary's. Though it came to Las Vegas with a league-best six-game winning streak.

Now it's BYU that has won six in a row, improving to 23-10.

Playing Gonzaga a third time only figures to work to BYU's favor, rather than an underdog that could lower BYU's schedule-strength numbers and zap the WCC of a bid that would have either gone to BYU or the Bulldogs.

BYU played as it has the last three weeks — like it's all on the line.

"Our guys have a lot of confidence in each other," Rose said. "But also a lot of belief in their teammates."

That convinced Rose to start Mika started for the first time in five games — to somewhat mixed results.

He made his first three shots and added three rebounds as Rose broke from his recent strategy of avoiding soon-after-tipoff foul trouble to his freshman center.

But Mika lost his cool on a first-half jump ball, and it set a tough trend for him and the Cougars.

Sure, not a totally direct correlation. But Rose opted to sit his fuming star for a few minutes after taking a tumble. He jumped up quickly and confronted the Don who also held the ball with him.

Rose chastised his player on his way toward him.

USF kept calm and started an 11-0 run that eventually produced a 31-29 with 3:40 before halftime.

Mika came back near the end of the Don surge, but quickly exited after picking up his second foul, after spinning and trying to get to the rim from the perimeter and bowling over a defender.

BYU scrambled for extra chances like it did so well against San Diego in the WCC quarterfinals on Saturday.

Winder produced a 3-point play, missing the free throw, but Collinsworth's rebound set him up for a layup to take a 35-33 lead.

But the Cougars had turnovers on their final two possessions, setting up a free throw and a 3-pointer by Avry Holmes with 40 seconds left for the two-point lead.

The previous two matchups during the regular season were three-point games at halftime, each having the advantage once.

On to even bigger things now, weariness be darned.

"I know we'll get a great effort. Hopefully we can sustain it for 40 minutes," Rose said.

jason-franchuk
-- Jason Franchuk covers primarily BYU football and basketball for the Daily Herald. You can connect with him by email at jfranchuk@heraldextra.com or by following him on Twitter at

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