BYU wins

Sweet Emotion: Cougars 1 step closer to NYC through NIT; pound Mercer, play at Southern Miss on Wed.

2013-03-26T00:15:00Z 2013-11-06T21:45:33Z Sweet Emotion: Cougars 1 step closer to NYC through NIT; pound Mercer, play at Southern Miss on Wed.Jason Franchuk - Daily Herald Daily Herald
March 26, 2013 12:15 am  • 

The words "freed up" kept popping up Monday night.

Not just from Mercer's head coach, who used them to praise just how smoothly BYU was playing in the second round of the NIT.

But a couple Cougar players said something of the same effect. And head coach Dave Rose, who's often looked dour on the bench this year — even in the best of times — was in full emotional overload after a rout of a solid Mercer team.

He even was slapping high-fives with players in the closing seconds in what would become the last game at the Marriott Center this season. Then he went behind the press row after the game — something no one could remember him doing in his eight years previously — and gave a big smooch to his wife, Cheryl.

A third NIT game, with a trip to New York City on the line for the semifinals, will take place Wednesday at Southern Mississippi. The Golden Eagles defeated Louisiana Tech at home about an hour after BYU dismantled Mercer, 90-71.

"We're rolling. It's a lot of fun, the way we're playing. Every game, we're battling to keep playing," senior center Brandon Davies said after a game-high 26 points and 10 rebounds, acknowledging he thought about it being his last game in Provo. "Nobody wants to be done, and I think you saw that."

BYU only trailed 3-0 before hitting three 3-pointers right off the opening tipoff.

Matt Carlino dropped jaws on both benches, and among the crowd of 12,929, by hitting two deep 3-pointers within his team's first three possessions.

Brock Zylstra had one in the middle.

It was an extravaganza fitting of a special guest, of which the Cougars thought they had one with loquacious Bill Walton calling the game for an ESPN network.

"It was special," Carlino said after hitting 5-of-10 3-pointers (18 points), adding that he was excited to meet the playing and commentating legend.

The Cougars were playing with a keen sense of awareness about an opponent they knew very little about last week.

Mercer was the regular-season champion of the Atlantic Sun Conference, and sported wins at Alabama and Florida State in the regular season plus Tennessee to open the NIT. A team that's getting talked about more these days is Florida Gulf Coast, which went from a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament to a Sweet 16 national darling.

Mercer won 1-of-3 meetings, most critically losing the conference tournament championship in a locale where one bid is all that's going to be allowed.

Yet Florida Gulf Coast has moved past BYU's West Coast Conference nemesis Gonzaga, which was dropped in the second round despite being a No. 1 seed.

The Cougars talked about Mercer's status leading up to this game.

BYU, on full alert, surged to a 28-11 lead after nine minutes.

Three times, Mercer pulled within five points in the second half. A steady team finally figured out its nerves and the Cougars' extra-aggressive defense, which could afford to be that way playing in front for so long.

But each time Mercer looked capable of winning a seventh consecutive postseason game (including a CIT title run that ended at Utah State last year), the Cougars scored a bucket.

It hasn't always been like that this year, of course. It was a sight on this night.

Davies would find the rim. Or Tyler Haws (24 points) would get his touch. Or Carlino, who's also tallied nine assists in both NIT games, would do something extra special. There were dives on the floor, and aggressive dunks. Davies even had a fake pass, turned into a layup, that was getting Walton's giddiness to a new level.

Same with Carlino's shotmaking.

"There was one of his 3-pointers, I wanted to measure how far he was away," marveled Mercer coach Bob Hoffman.

Carlino quipped that he was excited about any chance to not have to travel, to "get to sleep in my own bed."

But Southern Miss (27-9) will get a home game against the 23-11 Cougars.

Tipoff is slated for 6 p.m. Utah time on ESPNU.

Southern Mississippi won, 63-52, against Louisiana Tech as the No. 1 seed in the eight-team quadrant also won a couple of home games like the No. 3 Cougars, who ousted Washington last Tuesday.

The teams have no common opponents this year.

Southern Miss will have to contend with an uncommon level of Cougar confidence these days.

BYU shot 10-of-24 from 3-point range, and Mercer's rally from a rugged start, including a variety of easy, close-range second-half baskets, wasn't enough to escape the damage of the initial minutes.

"I thought we were good from start to finish. We played with a lot of heart and passion. That gets us excited as a staff to see that in our guys," Rose said.

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