BYU fans probably thought this Cougar team would be different, but Monday’s 51-50 loss to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference semifinals was the same old story.
BYU hasn’t won a conference tournament in 19 years. In 2001, the Cougars beat Air Force, Utah and New Mexico to claim the Mountain West Conference Tournament title under Steve Cleveland. Since then, the Cougars have played in six conference championship games for Dave Rose – 2007, 2008 and 2011 in the MWC and 2014, 2015 and 2018 in the WCC – without a win.
No. 2 Gonzaga, which beat Saint Mary’s 84-66 on Tuesday for the WCC Tournament title, has won 18 WCC Tournament championships and seven in the past eight seasons.
On Monday, both BYU and Saint Mary’s had strong defensive game plans. For most of the game the Cougars kept Jordan Ford from penetrating and the Gaels ended up forcing shots late in the clock. Saint Mary’s stuck to BYU’s 3-point shooters and dug down when Yoeli Childs would make a move to the basket. While Childs finished with 23 points, he was just 3 of 14 from the field in the second half and committed five turnovers. The Cougars were 7 of 18 from the 3-point line (39%) but a dismal 10 of 29 (34%) inside the arc. The Gaels didn’t shoot well from the field (36%) but found a way in the second half to get Ford loose for some shots, including the game winning with 1.4 seconds to play.
BYU hadn’t played a game since Feb. 29 at Pepperdine, a span of nine days, and didn’t look anything like the team that beat Gonzaga and won 13 league games.
“I don’t think that (the layoff) really had an impact on our performance,” Childs said. “We were clearly not prepared for the nature of the game. Saint Mary’s was tougher than us and more physical than us. They really got us out of our stuff. Moving forward we have to play with more force and more aggressive. We have to move through contact to get to our spots.”
BYU has another nine days to stew on the loss and prepare for the NCAA Tournament. The selections show is Sunday evening and the Cougars will play a first-round game next Thursday.
BYU coach Mark Pope said his players will be ready.
“They have rung the bell every time this year,” he said. “The last time we suffered a loss we ran off nine straight with some epic wins. I trust this group. It’s a player-led group with unbelievable leadership. We don’t have any choice but to do that now. This is incredibly disappointing. It will actually hurt more in an hour and way more tomorrow. We’ve got to pick ourselves up and jump into this thing. These guys worked really hard this year. They’ve had a spectacular year and earned the opportunity to play in this (NCAA) tournament. None of them is going to take it lightly.”
The game was unevenly officiated for a physical contest. Only 10 fouls were called between the two teams in the first half but 23 where whistled in the second. Saint Mary’s finished 9 of 12 from the free throw line and BYU was 9 of 15, with Childs making just 5 of 10.
“I thought the officials were fine,” Pope said. “They were consistent throughout the game. Clearly I wish things had gone differently. I appreciate the fact that they were letting guys play. I did a poor job coaching on my part not having our guys prepared for this.”
Nine minutes of frustration
Childs made a 3-pointer at the 12:44 mark of the second half for a 37-32 BYU lead. The Cougars then went more than nine minutes without a basket that included the following: Ten missed shots, including six inside the paint; two turnovers, 4 of 6 from the foul line and a technical foul on Pope.
BYU could have earned as high as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a good performance in the WCC Tourney. Instead, most projections have the Cougars going in as a No. 6 or No. 7 seed.
“We’ve been great at writing our story, and so the story we have to write is this devastating loss, a poor coaching performance and not our best performance we’ve had on the court,” Pope said. “This will springboard us to do something special. These guys have been dreaming of this their whole lives. That’s the only story left for us so we have to write it.”
Going to the dance
In the women’s championship game, No. 4 Portland pulled off the upset with a 64-63 overtime victory against No. 2 San Diego. The Pilots (21-11) – picked to finish last in the WCC preseason poll — earned the WCC’s automatic bid and will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997.
Regular-season champion Gonzaga (28-3) will be the second team from the conference in the NCAA field, which will be announced next Monday.
The BYU women’s basketball team, which finished third in the WCC this season but lost in the quarterfinals to Pepperdine, will await a possible invitation to the WNIT next week.
As for next season, the Cougars will return three starters in 6-foot-7 Sara Hamson – the WCC Defensive Player of the Year — leading scorer Paisley Johnson and point guard Maria Albiero. In addition, 2019 WCC Freshman of the Year Shaylee Gonzales will be healthy and ready to go. Gonzales suffered a torn ACL this summer and will be cleared for full activity this week.
Another big addition will be junior college transfer forward Lauren Gustin, the former 4A Player of the Year from Salem Hills. Continued development from young players such as Kaylee Smiler, Babalu Ugwu, Leilani Otuafi, Malli Perri and Signe Glantz will be important. Cougar coach Jeff Judkins is also high on 6-foot-2 freshman Kyra Beckman, who redshirted this season due to injury.