SAN FRANCISCO — It took coming back to the Bay Area to realize BYU may just have things figured out.
The Cougars have come a long way since a Nov. 11 win at Stanford (Palo Alto) when they were a team that posted 112 points and just thought they could outscore anyone.
The dip in scoring has been matched by an overwhelming sense of the value of defense.
Winning at San Francisco for the third consecutive year — this being the most comfortable margin, but perhaps also the most important outcome — happened to be a chance to show they're not just a home team or an offensive-minded group.
"That's four in a row," guard Matt Carlino said of BYU's overall winning streak. "And we need to keep it going."
Fighting over ball screens, going after loose balls more viciously in the second half. Moving the ball.
That was the big stuff that coincided with five double-digit scorers on a Thursday night BYU shot 47 percent in an 83-76 win at USF.
"We got some big baskets off our sets, hit some free throws and we were able to seal the game," BYU coach Dave Rose said.
Kyle Collinsworth had 19 points and four rebounds in his first visit to War Memorial Gym.
It was the versatile returned-missionary guard that USF coach Rex Walters was worried about because, like many West Coast Conference coaches, he didn't know much about another player that BYU fans were accustomed to seeing (before he went to Russia) but was a new element in this new setting, after playing a freshman year in the Mountain West Conference.
Collinsworth contributed a late tie-up with 21.1 seconds left. USF, which never led by more than an early four-point margin — another difference in these recent Cougars is not getting behind big early — cut its deficit to five points and had an out-of-bounds play. Collinsworth took advantage of a Don holding the ball out for him to take away.
"It was not a jump ball," Rose quipped, in great spirits. "But it was a great play."
Matt Carlino, who loves shooting in this green-bleachered gym, had four free throws after the Collinsworth steal to finish with 17 points.
BYU had lost true road games at Utah and Oregon plus WCC members Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.
Carlino's role has shifted since he helped produced a high-tempo onslaught at Stanford. But he continues to thrive off the bench. He provided 10 first-half points, including a couple of threes.
"He was telling me he felt good, that he like shooting here," Collinsworth said. "He was shooting it well at shoot-around, too."
But it was Carlino's defense (we're starting to put those two words together a little more these days) that produced the key second-half spark.
USF trailed, 48-47, when Carlino forced a steal near the baseline and produced a long pass to Tyler Haws that turned into a one-handed dunk and a 3-point play.
The Dons (11-8, 4-3 WCC) never threatened again.
Avry Holmes hit a 3-pointer to draw USF within one on the next possession, but Skyler Halford joined in with three points from the foul line after getting hacked beyond the arc.
BYU made 28-of-37 free throws, another upward trend as a team.
Haws had 15 points on a relatively quiet night besides a rare slam dunk.
Halford added 18, thanks in large part to an 11-of-12 outing at the foul line.
Carlino's 17 were his lowest three-game total at WMG, but his 5-for-9 efficiency was a good example of how he's blended into a new role that still provided him 27 minutes.
And we haven't even talked about Eric Mika, who saw 23 minutes and had 11 points. The freshman center still doesn't look like his old self, and he fouled out again despite having just one whistled blurted for him in the first half. Mika appeared to be dealing with a sore foot in the closing minutes when he picked up foul No. 5 with 3 1/2 minutes left.
"The best news was (athletic trainer Rob Ramos) telling me he could go right back in," Rose said.
BYU (12-7, 4-2) will play at Santa Clara on Saturday night.
The Cougars are getting used to the road habits of league play, too. They were fired up afterward to go grab dinner and check into a new hotel closer to their second game of the road swing in the San Jose area.
Out-of-town food and another strange bed would feel even better, though, as BYU buckled down defensively in the second half.
"We got away from how we win on the road," Rose said, alluding to struggles since the 112-103 win at Stanford. "We just got to where we thought we could score and beat people. I really believe our commitment to the defensive end of the floor is what won this game for us. And when you get four or five guys scoring in double figures, and you're playing good defense, that's a good formula for winning on the road."