BYU’s pregame preparation for Saint Mary’s hinged on finding ways to stop the Gaels from scoring in their three favorite ways: driving layups, 3-pointers and post-ups.
In Thursday’s 71-66 victory at the Marriott Center the Cougars stepped up defensively in all three areas, forcing the Gaels to take contested shots and into missing their first 13 3-pointers. Saint Mary’s tried to post up 7-footers Jordan Hunter and Matthias Tass, as well as 6-foot-8 Malik Fitts, but had limited success.
The Gaels came into the game No. 1 in the West Coast Conference in 3-point field goals (39 percent) and overall field goals (49 percent), but were just 5-of-20 (25 percent) from distance and 26-of-59 (44 percent) overall with 15 turnovers.
“I think that it was a real quality win for our team,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “I think our guys responded well to a disappointing outcome a couple weeks ago at their place. We weathered a lot of storms. When you hold a team to 66 points and they get 17 offensive rebounds, it shows determination and grit. We stayed in it and hung in there. We made them take tough shots.”
Freshman Gavin Baxter continued his progress with 10 points on 5-of-6 from the field, five rebounds and two blocks in a season-high 27 minutes. Two of his baskets came on offensive rebounds and a pair of soaring dunks ignited the home crowd.
“Obviously, I’m in my first year,” Baxter said on the BYU Sports Network in his postgame interview. “I remember at the beginning of the year, everything was going a million miles an hour. It’s kind of hard to know all the things I’m supposed to do and all the different places I’m supposed to be both on offense and defense. The game is slowing down. I’m able to see things more and get a better feel for the game. That’s big for me, just to have that for a confidence booster.”
Baxter played 10 minutes in the first half and earned the start in the second against the Gaels.
“Gavin is just getting better and better right now,” BYU junior guard T.J. Haws said. “Out on the floor, he has a lot of confidence and he’s playing really great. I’m proud of him. That wingspan is super long and he can challenge a lot of shots. We made them uncomfortable tonight, and a lot of that was Gavin.”
Fitts began the game scoring eight points in the first four minutes for Saint Mary’s, but Baxter’s defensive effort helped slow him down.
“The matchup was what we needed,” Rose said. “His length caused Fitts some problems. Gav came in and settled him down. Fitts drove to the basket a couple times and Gavin’s length made him miss. His legs are alive and his length really helps us.”
Still seats available The crowd of 11,427 at the Marriott Center was a few hundred short of this year’s average and much less than the last two times BYU has hosted Saint Mary’s. In 2018, attendance for the Cougars-Gaels game was 16,212 and in 2017 it was a sellout (18,987).
One of the officials for the BYU-Saint Mary’s game was Bill Vinovich, a name that will forever make New Orleans Saints fans cringe. Vinovich was the lead official in last week’s NFC Championship game on a crew that missed an egregious pass interference penalty committed by the Los Angeles Rams late in the game.
Always a reason
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said his team didn’t play well enough to beat BYU in the Marriott Center and added that the active home crowd may have influenced the officiating.
“I think it affects the refs,” Bennett said. “It’s so loud. It can affect them if they’re not careful. It can affect us, too. It affects all three parties. That’s why they don’t lose much here.”
It’s our ball
BYU committed only two turnovers against Saint Mary’s — a season low — and no turnovers in the entire second half. Haws scored 17 points — 14 in the second half — and dished off seven assists with zero turnovers in 31 minutes. It was the third time this season Haws has played a turnover-free game. He also had zero turnovers against Oral Roberts (31 minutes) and Houston (34 minutes).
It’s our job
Sports writers often detail how players deal with the pressures of an up-and-down season. How do coaches handle that same pressure?
“I’ll give our staff a lot of credit but a lot of that comes on me and how I present it to them,” Rose said. “They understand the urgency we’re under. They understand the microscope, the spotlight or whatever you want to call it. I’m just really impressed with how these guys do their job.
“All of us have got something to do every day. Every game, we show up and we’ve all got a job to do. I’m really impressed with how professional the guys are. Sometimes the tougher things are the better you can see their performance, so I’ve got that going for me.”
Senior guard McKay Cannon moved into the starting lineup seven games ago and the Cougars are 5-2 in those games. Cannon’s defensive effort to begin games has been a key factor and he was especially effective against Saint Mary’s guard Jordan Ford, who came in averaging 22.3 points on 45 percent from the field. Ford finished 6-of-15 (1-of-5 from the 3-point line) for 15 points.
Cannon also helped create a 10-0 run in the first half that turned a 22-17 deficit into a 27-22 lead with a 3-pointer and a driving layup.
“I think it’s been good for the team,” Cannon said. “I haven’t done anything different role-wise. I’ve done the exact same things I was doing off the bench. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to help the team win.”
Gonzaga took aim at some of the struggling programs in the WCC last summer and challenged them to invest more in their programs. Santa Clara responded by taking out a full-page ad in the Spokane Spokesman-Review with the caption “Game On.”
The Zags routed the Broncos 98-39 on Thursday, and combined with an earlier 91-48 win, Gonzaga has outscored Santa Clara by 102 points in the two meetings this season.
Take the day off
For the first time in WCC play the Cougars don’t have a game on Saturday. Rose said he would give the team Friday off and then lift on Saturday morning with a lighter workout. BYU will host No. 4 Gonzaga and Loyola Marymount next week in the Marriott Center.