The BYU-San Diego men’s basketball game at Jenny Craig Pavilion on Saturday featured 19 lead changes.
The Cougars are grateful there wasn’t a 20th.
The Toreros, just 2-10 in the West Coast Conference coming into the game, put a real scare into BYU and had a shot at the buzzer that would have pulled off a huge upset. But Braun Hartfield’s 3-pointer from the corner bounced off the rim and the Cougars survived for a 72-71 victory.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” BYU coach Mark Pope told the CBS Sports Network. “It gets really hard in league. If there was a game I was going to circle on the calendar right now that would make me nervous, it was this one. The guys have been stretched so much and we were just 4-4 here in the past eight years. What these guys have done all season long is try to find a way to win for each other, and that’s what they did tonight.”
BYU’s largest lead was just five points as San Diego simply wouldn’t go away like a 2-10 team should. In the final three minutes, The Cougar defense was beaten four straight times by the same pick and roll action that led to layups for Yauhen Massalski, the last giving the Toreros a 71-70 lead with 20.9 seconds to play.
BYU drew up a similar play to the one that led to T.J. Haws’ game-winning 3-pointer against Saint Mary’s last week, but this time Haws lobbed a pass to the rim to Yoeli Childs, who dunked the ball for a 72-71 Cougar lead with 11.1 seconds remaining.
“I had the easiest job for sure,” Childs told the BYU Sports Network. “I’ve got a 7-foot wing span so I might as well go up and catch the ball. T.J. made an amazing pass and it was a great call by Coach Pope.”
Alex Barcello nearly caused a turnover on the Toreros last possession which led to the home team taking the ball out of bounds on the sideline with 2.6 seconds to play. Hartfield caught a pass in the corner but was met there by Connor Harding and Childs, who both challenged the shot. The ball bounced off the front rim and Barcello came down with it as the buzzer sounded.
In the ensuing celebration huddle, Childs reminded his teammates that Pope has been saying for weeks that there would come a time when the Cougars would have to win a game with their defense.
That time was Saturday.
The BYU defense wasn’t great against San Diego — the Toreros shot 50% on the night — but the Cougars came up with a big defensive possession at the end to escape with their sixth straight win.
Haws finished with 17 points and 10 assists for BYU (10-3 WCC, 21-7 overall) and Childs, who sat much of the second half with foul trouble, contributed 17 points and seven rebounds.
BYU got off to a slow start, falling behind San Diego 7-0 in the first 1:35. The Cougars recovered and got back into the game but could never shake the Toreros in the first half. Zac Seljaas counted two quick 3-pointers for a 17-14 lead, but San Diego jumped back on top at 20-17 after a 6-0 run with 7:36 to play. The Cougars eased out to a 28-24 lead at the 4:07 mark after a 10-2 run with five points from Jake Toolson. But the Toreros kept finding holes in the BYU defense and a layup by Alex Floresca gave the home team a 33-32 halftime lead.
The second half went back and forth as the young Toreros gained confidence the longer they stayed with the Cougars. Finn Sullivan, who averages 4.1 points per game, scored 16 to lead San Diego (2-11, 9-19). Jared Rodriguez, who averages 5.7 points per game, had 12 points including a stretch of 10 straight in the second half.
It was almost enough for a big upset, but BYU’s magical season keeps rolling along.
“Listen, this doesn’t do a great amount for us metrics-wise, and the metrics are really important,” Pope said. “But this does a lot for us winning wise. And at the end of the day you know what? The metrics and all that are fun, but this deal is about learning to win as a team. These guys proved to themselves that they can go through a game where they are trying really hard but just can’t quick find the answers. These guys just gutted it out and made huge plays. Seniors made huge veteran plays down the stretch to win a game, and that adds belief. As you go toward the post season you try to take every shot that you can toward adding belief into your arsenal.”
BYU shot 61% in the second half (14 of 23) and made 4 of 8 from the 3-point line, a big improvement over a first half where the Cougars were 12 of 35 (34%) from the field and 5 of 16 (31%) from distance.
San Diego matched BYU by shooting 58% in the second half (15 of 26) and 5 of 10 from beyond the arc.
Cougar senior forward Dalton Nixon, who suffered a badly sprained ankle after a hard foul at Loyola Marymount on Thursday, sat out against San Diego and is expected to miss at least two weeks.
BYU hosts Santa Clara next Thursday before a big showdown with No. 2 Gonzaga at the Marriott Center next Saturday.