Rex Walters surprised a lot of onlookers at the Marriott Center by bringing his San Francisco basketball team onto the floor sooner than most do near the end of halftime.
It was a "form" drill he wanted to practice — something usually saved for, well, practice — though the Dons head coach quipped that maybe he should've worked on rebounding at an even more aggressive rate before play started again.
A proud visiting team on the glass was boxed-out badly, into a 68-63 loss in which even Justin Bieber would've had to be impressed at how many second chances the Cougars could afford themselves.
"They pride themselves in how good of a rebounding team they are," BYU head coach Dave Rose said, noting that Walters has used that unorthodox game-time session other times this season. "They're a great rebounding team, and our guys out-rebounded them pretty good. That's what it took."
Took, take, whatever the tense: BYU took away a lot of extra chances to take home a big win that put the Cougars into second place in the West Coast Conference race.
It was a 47-29 advantage overall on rebounding, including 20-5 on the offensive glass as the two teams adopted different strategies.
The Cougars wanted to crash, use their height advantage, and they kept trying harder as it was clear the shooting wasn't there. Just 41 percent, eight points lower than USF, which won in Provo last year behind a terrific second half of shooting.
The Dons, who were stunted into seven fewer shots, wanted to drop back players after their own missed shots and not let BYU fast break.
"We're a pretty big team across the board," Walters said. "They're a really big team across the board."
Of course, it's all about points. And BYU produced a 16-4 margin off second chances, including some key late points that afforded BYU a rally after not leading for a significant chunk of the second half.
Kyle Collinsworth's rebound led to a Matt Carlino 3-pointer for a 65-60 lead as the Cougars began pulling away with about three minutes left.
Before that, nearly 7-foot-tall Nate Austin — who produced 16 rebounds, eight at each end — had a follow-up dunk off Eric Mika's missed shot.
The final horn sounded after Walters opted not to keep fouling (though BYU made it interesting, by missing five of its last six attempts). Rose looked high into the rafters, soaking up a buzzing near-sellout home crowd that helped push the Cougars (17-9, 9-4) into sole possession of second place in the West Coast Conference, ahead of San Francisco (15-10, 8-5).
Gonzaga will be tough to catch at 11-1, but at least the possibility is still in play.
But Rose also had to feel a bit relieved, running the winning streak to four games; all at home.
"We did barely just enough to get a big win," Rose said, not trying in the slightest to be backhanded.
BYU gritted this one out, in a good way.
It started early. Collinsworth missed back-to-back jumpshots before getting a third chance when he was fed for a hard-earned layup for an 11-10 lead.
That would be the Cougars' theme.
It was 61-58 coming out of the final media timeout when BYU had possession at mid-court. A sloppy entry pass gave USF quick possession. But Carlino hunted down the play and retrieved the ball at the baseline where the Dons tried to score.
"It was out in front of my face," Carlino said of his steal. "So I just grabbed it. I don't know. It was kind of lucky."
Luck wasn't quite the right word. Though there was some solid fortune.
BYU didn't get a usual high rate of efficiency from Tyler Haws, who was 7-of-20 from the field and wasn't even that good until a late surge spurred on by the success of teammates — when lately it's tended to be the other way around.
Haws' presence, however, made it difficult for USF, Walters acknowledged when it came to rebounding. Double-teams left Cougars open to go chase caroms.
"The tough thing is when you're chasing Haws and you're helping on Haws," Walters said. "It's like when penetration breaks down your defense."
Haws did made a pair of free throws with about six minutes left — the Cougars' first lead in nearly 13 minutes.
From there, it was about hanging on.
Collinsworth missed four consecutive free throws over two late trips, but Mika rebounded the last one to set up a new possession with about 35 seconds left and BYU up 67-63.
Carlino, who also hit a couple significant second-half 3-pointers, then missed 1-of-2 after getting fouled quickly. USF missed a 3-pointer, but managed to secure a turnover.
The Dons followed up with missed reverse layup, and Walters told his team not to foul again despite BYU's recent misery at the foul line.
BYU still had 19 points apiece from Collinsworth and Haws on a night they combined to miss 20-of-35 shots.
Austin was there to give teammates extra chances. Another big moment on a four-point night was drawing a charge with 5:17 left as BYU nursed a 57-55 lead.
It was so clear, position so good, Walters didn't argue it.
"A really big play," Rose said. "That's what Nate's been about, is winning numbers."
Mika had 13 points and as many rebounds. Austin only had four points (2-of-4 shooting) but was a monster at setting up teammates.
It played a large part in the Dons getting seven fewer shots despite having an eight-percent advantage in shooting (49 to 41).
The Cougars will head to the road next Thursday to face Pacific followed by a Saturday game at Saint Mary's – where BYU has been drilled in two previous West Coast Conference tries.
∫Familiar name: A Cougar opponent tied Tyler Haws on Saturday afternoon for a national mark. Melvin Ejim, of Iowa State, had 48 points and 18 rebounds in a home win against TCU. That tied Haws and Aaric Murray (Texas Southern) for most points in a single game this year. Haws had his 48 at Portland a couple of weeks ago in a triple-overtime loss. Ejim had 21 points, four rebounds and three assists in a Nov. 20 win in Provo before fouling out and causing some angst by giving an obscene gesture to the Cougar student section as he reached the bench.
∫Tip-ins: Reserve freshman guard Frank Bartley IV started the game not even on the bench. He rode the stationary bike in the corner behind BYU's bench for the first 3 1/2 game minutes. He only played one minute. ... BYU players sported grey West Coast Conference-sponsored T-shirts that said "Represent" on the front and "Sportsmanship" on the back ...BYU's 32 first-half points was the lowest since the Dec. 30 loss at Pepperdine, the second game of conference play.