BLACKSBURG, Va. — They talked about being tough, making plays. Those words came up so often in timeout huddles, and the BYU coaching staff was so convincing to its players, that BYU accomplished successfully what had been the worst part of their past three games during road-game crunch time.
"It showed a lot of maturity down the stretch," BYU head coach Dave Rose said of his team's ability to hit a couple of 3-point shots.
A duo that had missed its previous nine attempts Wednesday, continuing a weeklong team trend, made two of its last four tries — a wildly good rate considering recent times — to earn a significant road win at Virginia Tech, 70-68.
The 18-5 Cougars, visiting the hoops-regal ACC country Wednesday also survived a buzzer-beating, game-winning attempt from the Hokies when they had 9.8 seconds left to go for the win at Cassell Coliseum. That came after a call that BYU was livid about when Virginia Tech was awarded the ball following a botched inbounds play that a couple of players were still convinced the ball went off a Hokie.
"We had to keep our heads in it," Zylstra said.
He did, and not just on the last defensive stand. On a 1-of-5 shooting show, Zylstra scored his first points on a trey with 26.5 seconds left that put BYU ahead, 69-66. It came shortly after Charles Abouo put a successful cap on what ended as a 1-for-7 night from long range by giving his team a 62-59 lead with 3:02 remaining.
Point guard Matt Carlino and Abouo played a little hot potato with each other, and Abouo even gave a rare behind-the-back pass to his teammate when trapped at an awkward angle near the sideline. The second pass to the senior wing player, however, the freshman Carlino cajoled him to "shoot it."
A guy facing a 3-for-11 night at the time? Really?
Ah, go for it.
Same thing with Zylstra. His shot effectively put the game away. Though the Cougars had to survive a fast-break layup that cut their lead to two points, then a botched inbounds pass — and the Hokies having the last shot from the left wing that clanked off the back of the rim.
"The first thing I looked at was the clock," Rose said of Robert Brown's clean look. "I think it left his hand with 0.9 (seconds). And then you just go 'oh, boy. Let's see what happened.' And it bounced off."
BYU bounced back psychologically from various factors.
The Hokies missed their first 16 shots but trailed just 29-25 at halftime. (Take away that brutal drought, and the home team was 24-for-40 from the field).
Virginia Tech even led, 45-39, when BYU called timeout to regroup with 11:12 left. Freshman backup center Nate Austin, who had 17 minutes because of Brandon Davies' fourth foul picked up right before the Hokies' biggest lead, nailed a long jumpshot that pulled the Cougars within four points.
In a game of runs, BYU's ensuing 11-0 spurt had things looking good, ahead 50-45 with 8:29 left after a Noah Hartsock free throw (part of a 22-point night).
What was a brick-fest for 30 minutes turned into a wild net-scorcher down the stretch.
Rose expected the defensive shutdown. And his team, which came in missing 32 of its past 36 3-point shots over the previous two games, was limited to 5-of-24 against the best team in the country in defending the bomb.
But when things weren't good, the Cougars often found Hartsock late — he had 16 of his points after halftime.
Just as they found Davies (17 points) early, especially at the foul line.
"Virginia Tech was physical and strong," Hartsock said. "We just weren't making shots at times, so we had to be better on the defensive end."
Then the Cougars actually hit some outside shots.
Between The big shots from Abouo and Zylstra, Carlino and Abouo missed long looks in an attempt to put away the Hokies. But the team made just enough, especially Zylstra's that was set up by Davies with his back to the basket on the left side of the key. The center turned and fired the ball over his left shoulder. Zylstra, who said he felt like the ball was leaving his hand smoothly all night, finally got one to swish.
"It was one of those shots, where it's later in the shot clock. And he's wide-open," Rose said of Zylstra's heroics. "And he hasn't made one all game long. But we needed to shoot that shot. That was the emphasis for our guys. When we got open shots; we need to step into them with confidence, and make them."
It may not have only been a game-clincher, but a trendsetter heading into a very important two-game home stretch with new West Coast Conference rivals St Mary's on Saturday and Gonzaga next Thursday.
"We have to focus and have more confidence in ourselves," Hartsock said.
Jason Franchuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter, @harkthefranchuk