LAS VEGAS — BYU will see your tough defense and super-efficient offense, Saint Mary’s, and raise you a West Coast Conference Tournament semifinal win.
In many ways, the Cougars beat the 20th-ranked Gaels at their own game on Monday. For a team that had lost five straight to Saint Mary’s – including last year’s 31-point loss in the WCC semifinals -- it was sweet redemption.
Yoeli Childs scored a career-high 33 points and Elijah Bryant added 25 for BYU, which shot 61 percent from the field in an 85-72 victory against the Gaels at Orleans Arena. The Cougars will play — who else? — No. 6 Gonzaga in Tuesday’s championship game.
T.J. Haws was brilliant as a playmaker with 11 points and seven assists for BYU (24-9), which finds itself one win from earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“The bottom line is we feel like we’re built to win this tournament,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “We feel like we can win three games in four days. We can win them all.”
Childs was 13 of 18 from the field and an unexpected 3 of 3 from the 3-point line in his best game as a Cougar.
“I’ve struggle recently (from the 3-point line),” Childs admitted, “but I think it’s just a testament to the coaching staff and my teammates trusting me.”
BYU led 41-37 at the half. Bryant scored on an out-of-bounds play then fed Childs for a dunk and the Cougars took a 45-37 lead early in the second half. Saint Mary’s cut the lead to one, 55-54, with 11:10 to play but BYU responded with an excellent display of interior passing in its half-court offense. A 12-0 run, which included Childs’ third 3-pointer of the night, pushed the Cougars to their largest lead at 13 points (67-54) with nine minutes to play.
The Gaels trimmed the BYU lead to six, 71-65, with 3:24 to play but the Cougars continued to attack in the half court. Haws and Bryant both scored on drives for a 75-65 advantage with 2:20 remaining.
BYU locked up the game on a single possession with less than two minutes to go. McKay Cannon chased down an errant pass and fired the ball to Childs, who drained a short jumper just before the shot clock expired for a 79-68 lead with 1:06 to play. BYU connected on eight straight free throws to make the victory complete.
“This was a really satisfying win, especially for our guys returning from last year, because last year was kind of tough in here,” Rose said. “Our guys were on it. They shared the ball, they were tough, they played together, they executed well and made big shots. That’s how you win. That’s a pretty good formula.”
BYU started fast and took an 11-4 lead on a Jahshire Hardnett layup at the 15:10 mark. Saint Mary’s responded with an 11-2 burst, including a pair of 3-pointers by Calvin Hermanson, to grab a 15-13 lead. The game settled into an efficient offensive showcase for both teams with seven ties and 13 lead changes in the first half alone. The half ended with Childs hitting a 3-pointer for a 41-37 advantage. The 41 points represented the second-most points allowed in a half all year by Saint Mary’s -- until the Cougars scored 44 in the second half.
“It was huge just to make the right plays, and that’s what we did tonight,” Childs said. “The ball was popping around and nobody cared who did what. When we pop the ball around and get the best shot possible, we’re pretty tough to guard.”
WCC Player of the Year Jock Landale finished with 23 points on 9 of 13 from the field but picked up three fouls in the first half, which affected the way the Gaels execute their offense. At halftime Landale had six points, three fouls and zero rebounds. He fouled out in the game’s final minute.
The Cougars also did a great defensive job on Saint Mary’s guard Emmett Naar, who still finished with seven assists but only two points on two shots.
“We needed guys to step up and hit shots,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “But our biggest problem was our defense. We were not very good defensively. We’ve got to give a better effort. We gave up 10 points in hustle plays in transition. When you play good teams at this stage of the season you can’t give that up. You’ve got to hustle. You can’t give teams easy baskets and we gave them easy baskets.”
Jordan Ford scored 27 points for Saint Mary’s (28-5), which finds itself in a precarious position in terms of the NCAA Tournament with the loss.
Gonzaga (29-4) whipped San Francisco 88-60 in the earlier semifinal and will go into Tuesday’s game as a heavy favorite to win its sixth straight WCC Tournament title.
“Tonight was a really good win for our team and our players,” Rose said with a wry smile, “and our reward is we get to play Gonzaga. We look forward to it. Defensively we’re a pretty good team. Offensively, we’ve played really well down here. We scored 85 points both games. I think the biggest thing is to get the guys to believe in that. The energy we played with in the second half, I was really impressed with our guys. I think they really believe it.”