Saturday’s BYU-Portland men’s basketball game was a funny little thing where the two teams took turns thinking, “Are these guys ever going to miss?”
The Cougars came out white-hot against the Pilots, racing to a 24-2 lead in the game’s first seven minutes then watched as the visitors started making nearly every shot to trim the BYU lead to 7 points midway through the second half. But BYU put on one final scoring surge to pull away for a 96-70 victory at the Marriott Center.
The Cougars (2-1 WCC, 13-5 overall) had a few lulls throughout the game but the super-charged offense — led by a career-high 14 assists from TJ Haws and six players in double figures — turned on the juice when it was most needed.
Haws had zero turnovers, as did Jake Toolson, who added eight assists to the Cougars season-high 29 total.
BYU made its first six shots and jumped out to leads of 15-0 and 24-2 before Portland could catch its collective breath.
“Offensively, we have to play with a lot of pace and lot of force,” BYU senior forward Dalton Nixon said. “Our cuts and our screens really open up those opportunities for Jake and TJ to have those assists. I thought all night everyone in on the floor played together. That’s another huge key is being on the same page. We get the ball popping and it finds the open guys. That’s kind of our identity as a team offensively.”
That identity has changed a couple of times this season, specifically when Yoeli Childs had to sit out the first nine games due to an NCAA suspension and the past two games, after Childs injured his finger.
“It’s made easier because we have veteran guys that we’ve gone back and forth now,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “Defensively to start this game our guys were locked in physical and really carrying out the game plan. All the adjustments our guys have to make, credit to them. We have veteran guys that understand the game.”
Portland got hot and cut the BYU lead to 10, 33-23, with 7:20 to play but the Cougars ended the half on a 7-0 spurt, capped by a slick alley-oop pass from Haws to Nixon for a layup to beat the buzzer, and the home team took a 51-30 lead into the halftime break.
Portland’s hot streak continued in the second half as the Pilots started dropping in shots all over the court. The visitors made 11 of 16 from the field, outscoring the Cougars 25-11, to cut that 21-point halftime deficit to 7, 62-55, when Jo Jo Walker tossed in a 3-pointer with 11:22 to play.
BYU went on a 26-6 run over the next six minutes, keyed by some inspired play by Zac Seljaas. The senior forward dropped in a pair of 3-pointers and scored on back-to-back rebound baskets as the Cougars expanded their lead to 27, 88-61, on Haws’ 14th assist to Kolby Lee for a basket.
Seljaas scored a season-high 21 points on a perfect 5 of 5 from the 3-point line, his best scoring game since going for 25 his freshman year (2015) against Eastern Michigan. Nixon had his first career double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Haws finished with 13 points, Lee had 13, Toolson 12 and Alex Barcello 11.
“I think that (six players in double figures) is crucial to who we are,” Pope said. “On Thursday (an overtime loss to Saint Mary’s) we had our lowest assist opportunities number, which is really the marker we track more than assists. We only had 20 as a team. Tonight we had 53 assist opportunities, which is our season high. That’s something we addressed the last couple days and in the pregame.
“There is a belief that we have to continue working on that in biggest moments, for us to be successful, we have to make the simple play and not have to take things on our own shoulders. The guys responded beautifully tonight.”
Malcolm Porter led Portland (1-2, 9-9) with 16 points.
BYU hosts San Diego next Thursday in the Marriott Center before traveling to Spokane to take on No. 1 Gonzaga on Saturday.