The destination was a goal for a long time.
It's finally time for a Garden party.
Not exactly the way BYU head coach Dave Rose would have drawn it up at the beginning of the season — yet the Cougars are excitedly headed to New York City.
A 79-62 win at Southern Mississippi, a third consecutive win in the NIT, means a trip to the famous Madison Square Garden next Tuesday for a rematch with Baylor in the tournament's semifinals.
"I'm happy we get a chance to go in there and play," Rose said on his post-game radio show (KSL), pointing out that three years ago thought he had worked out his and BYU's "Big Apple" opportunity.
The team signed a contract to participate in the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic for this year. There was no opening before that, as these types of marquee early-season game contracts tend to fill up years in advance.
BYU was a natural for the event, considering Rose's very personal battle with cancer. The team also tried for a few years to get Jimmer Fredette a game in his home state, and New York City seemed like a reasonable option. Yet it never happened.
And then, just as BYU finally was accepted for the Coaches Vs. Cancer event...it was moved to the new NBA arena, Barclays Center, in nearby Brooklyn. A beautiful venue, sure, but not exactly history-soaked MSG.
"I've been trying 16 years to schedule a game in there," said Rose, who was an assistant for eight years at BYU before getting the promotion.
It finally happened, thanks to BYU playing the type of basketball its players, coaches and fans may have expected all season.
High tempo, high confidence, a season-high 11 3-pointers and just about everything flowing in Hattiesburg, Miss., in a sold-out arena facing a team that hadn't lost at home to a non-conference opponent since 2008 — a span of 30 games.
"We're just playing free and we're playing to have fun, and we're playing to have fun. It's just good out there, everything's flowing," said Matt Carlino, who had another nine-assist game to match the first two postseason showcases with Washington and Mercer.
Carlino, also hit four 3-pointers, including a halftime buzzer beater and a second-half bomb to elude a shot-clock violation, that brought USM to its knees. He also had plenty of viable options to pass.
Namely Brock Zylstra, a senior who was as hot as he's ever been shooting the ball. And of course Tyler Haws, who gave another nationally televised appearance to display just how lethal he could be over the next two years.
Zylstra had a season-high 23 points after tying his previous mark by halftime after making 5-of-6 from long range.
Haws hit 11-of-22 shots, including a 3-point play off a fancy jumpshot just as USM was getting back into the game late in the first half.
BYU fell behind 5-0, but scored the next 11 points and forced USM into missing nine consecutive shots.
The Cougars, who improved to 24-11, took a 40-29 halftime lead after Carlino buried his first three (after missing his opening five tries) right before the buzzer at Reed Green Coliseum, which was near capacity of 8,000 fans.
USM was trying to replicate an NIT championship run from 26 years ago that locals still cherish. They were warming up to this group, too, a talented team that nearly won the Conference USA tournament title and an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
But BYU's stars were aligned more closely in what not so long ago seemed like a star-crossed season. BYU fell apart in February then lost in its first game at the West Coast Conference tournament to San Diego, which didn't even possess a winning record.
Sent home quickly from Las Vegas after the March 8 debacle, without a game in the foreseeable future, BYU just regrouped and practiced hard.
BYU obliterated Washington last Tuesday and cruised through Mercer on Monday, a team that was so close to being an NCAA Tournament team — if only it could have defeated Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game. Now FGC, as a No. 15 seed, has become the national darlings of March Madness.
But BYU can at least say it's also still playing.
The semifinals will take place Tuesday at the cherished Manhattan venue.
Maryland will face Iowa and BYU will have a rematch with Baylor. The Cougars fell by 15 points in Waco, Texas, on Dec. 21.
"We weren't playing our best basketball then," Carlino said. "I think we're playing our best basketball right now."
the sophomore point guard's play has a lot to do with it. USM promotes defensive chaos and averages 15 steals a game, yet forced just six on BYU.
The Cougars started the second half on an 8-2 run, taking a 48-31 lead, and USM never came within 13 again.
Carlino said rebounding was a major reason for BYU's recent success (BYU had a 34-28 edge).
His assist totals help. He has 27 in the three-game postseason. He had 28 in the previous seven games.
Brandon Davies (5-of-13 shooting) didn't have his best scoring night, yet he still produced 12 points and 13 rebounds to earn a return trip to NYC.
BYU lost the two games in Brooklyn (Florida State, Notre Dame). But players have regularly said that, aside from the results, it was an enjoyable experience. They were eager to get back.
Carlino was already looking forward to trying to secure a ticket to baseball's opening day Monday at Yankee Stadium. He's a major New York fan, and his team opens with Boston.
"It's just going to be a blast," Carlino said. "There's no bigger stage than Madison Square Garden. It's going to be great."
BYU played great to get there.
USM had a spurt late in the first half when it could have perhaps taken a lead, but mangled a layup, had a turnover and botched an alley-oop dunk to stay trailing, 30-25.
The Golden Eagles pulled within 32-29 with 1:45 left when the Cougars produced a three-point play from Haws, then Zylstra had a layup after he stole a rebound from a teammate's airballed 3-pointer.
Carlino's three at the buzzer had USM reeling again in front of an ultra-supportive crowd that even gave a standing ovation in the waning moments to its ousted team.
∫Tip-ins: BYU totaled 24 assists on 29 baskets. ...USM was 14-1 at home this year, the only loss coming to NCAA Tournament participant Memphis on Feb. 9.