BYU clung to the top of the WAC standings with a win over Hawaii on Thursday, but the Cougars didn't get the outside help they could have used. UTEP and New Mexico both won on the road, leaving a three-way tie for first place at 10-4.
The Cougars also didn't get much "inside" help in the 81-64 victory over the Rainbows. Here they were, battling to stay in first, facing a good team that beat them in Honolulu three weeks ago, and 15,218 fans showed up. A couple of times they even cheered. BYU attracted more fans than that for games against such hot rivals as Tennessee Tech, La Salle and the crown kings of boring basketball, Air Force Academy."That's disappointing to our team," BYU coach Roger Reid said of the low turnout. "They deserve better than that."
"It was such a big game," said Cougar center Gary Trost. "I don't understand why there were only 15,000."
Maybe a big Tupperware party somewhere? Anyway, the Cougars managed to overcome their disappointment enough to shoot 72 percent from the field in the second half and put the Rainbow Warriors away. They also figured out a way, finally, to stop guard Phil Lott, the WAC's leading scorer who had averaged 22.5 points in his last four games against BYU. This time, Lott's first shot hit the side of the backboard - an omen? - and he went on to make 1 of 11 from the field and score eight.
The secret? Make him take shots with Y. guard Nate Call Velcroed to his chest. "He (Lott) is the kind of guy who can score against anybody," Reid said. But, apparently, not with anybody. Call, it seems, took it personal when Lott scored 26 in Honolulu. "When you're a good athlete your pride gets hurt," Reid noted. If that's true, Lott should have a field day Saturday against Utah.
Another Rainbow missing in action was Tim Shepherd, Hawaii's leading rebounder. In 20 minutes, Shepherd collected two points, zero rebounds, and the wrath of coach Riley Wallace.
Credit must be given to BYU, though, for a defensive game plan that stifled Hawaii. After watching films of the last game, the Cougs figured out where the Rainbows like to get the ball, then kept them from getting to those spots. "They took us out of anything easy offensively," Wallace said.
Hawaii, meanwhile, opened the game with a packed-in defense designed to take away BYU's inside game, only to give up three-pointers to Mark Heslop and Kevin Nixon that put the Cougs up 6-0. The 'Bows then spread it out a little, and the Cougs got consecutive layups by Jared Miller, Nixon and Heslop to go ahead 10-2. And it wasn't only the score that looked bad for Hawaii: Wallace was pleading with WAC Commissioner Joe Kearney at courtside for relief from what he deemed inept officiating, and his accustomed-to-sea-level players were sucking oxygen during timeouts.
It wasn't to be a blowout yet, however. The Cougs were whistled for seven team fouls in the first eight minutes, sending the Rainbows to the line enough to allow them to go ahead at 17-16. At that point, BYU went into a fullcourt press that baffled the 'Bows. A series of Hawaii turnovers allowed the Cougs to score 14 straight points - all by Trost, Miller and Nixon - and go in front permanently.
"We couldn't get away with that (the press) as a steady diet," Reid said, "but at times it's worked pretty good."
Hawaii was down by just eight at halftime, 39-31, but they were finished. BYU opened the second half with an 8-0 run to take a 16-point lead and made 15 of their first 16 shots from the field. They added the finishing touch with eight minutes left when, on consecutive possessions, BYU's Dave Astle rebounded and threw an outlet pass to Mark Heslop (7 assists), who fired the ball to a streaking Trost for two-hand slams.
"That kind of broke their backs," Call observed.
Four Cougars finished in double figures. Nixon led with 17, followed by Trost, 15; Miller, 12; and Heslop, 11. Reserve guard Bert Woodard led the 'Bows with 15; Fabio Ribeiro added 14.
The victory puts BYU at 19-6 overall and virtually assured of an NCAA berth, considering they have near-automatic wins coming up in the form of San Diego State on Saturday night and Cal-State Northridge on Tuesday. The WAC title is another matter. It's looking more and more like BYU will have to win at Utah a week from Saturday to clinch the league crown.
For Hawaii (8-6 WAC, 15-10 overall), this loss was the end to their slim title hopes. Wallace doesn't think, however, that his team will quit playing.
"If this is the kind of club I think I've got, this will fire us up," he said.
Just what the Utes wanted to hear.
GAME NOTES: Guard Nick Sanderson didn't play due to a jammed thumb on his shooting hand. Reid wasn't sure if he'll play Saturday against San Diego State . . . Those strangers on the end of the BYU bench were Matt Lohner of Provo and Steve Waldrip of Villa Park, Calif., a couple of walk-ons promoted from the junior varsity . . . Call had six assists to give him a WAC total of 96. He needs 17 in the last two games to break the single-season league record of 112 . . . BYU was outrebounded again, 33-31.