On a night when BYU's senior basketball players made their final curtain calls at the Marriott Center, little-used forward Robert Jones stole the show.
Jones got his chance when Cougar coach Roger Reid took advantage of a rare late-season nonconference game to start all four of his seniors. It was hardly a risky maneuver, as his team cruised to an easy 100-68 victory over Cal-State Northridge (11-17), but it was entertaining for those fans who chose to show up - if only because of Jones.The 6-foot-6 forward who had played 36 minutes all season responded to a rousing ovation during opening introductions by scoring five of BYU's first 13 points. Later in the half he returned to score six straight, including a one-handed stuff to finish a fast break and another slam after he had blocked a three-point attempt. That dunk capped a 10-0 Cougar run, put them ahead by 20 and signaled the end for the Matadors, who would never get closer than 17 again.
"It's no secret," said Cal-Northridge coach Pete Cassidy. "We were outmatched."
No kidding. Cassidy's Matadors couldn't guard the Cougars inside or outside and shot just 41 percent on a night when BYU wasn't nearly as interested in defense as offense. The Matadors' two biggest players are 6-7 (maybe), which allowed BYU's 6-10 Russell Larson, he of the jumbo-jet wingspan, to shoot baseline jumpers without jumping. Larson made all seven shots from the field and scored 15.
"BYU is probably the best team we played all year," said Cassidy, whose team made a visit to the Huntsman Center a couple of months ago. "They (the Utes) didn't handle us as easily as BYU did tonight."
Jones' final points of the night - a tip-in with 31 seconds left that gave him a total of 15 - lifted the Cougars to the 100-point level for the third time this season and resulted in another ovation. Throughout, Jones' teammates rose in unison and cheered every time he touched the ball.
"I was really pumped," said Jones, all smiles in the postgame locker room. "When coach told us he was going to let us start, I almost lost it."
Guard Nathan Call, who led the team in scoring with 18 in his farewell appearance, said he advised Jones this could be a big night for him. "I told Bob before the game he was going to get the ball, that on the break it was going to him no matter what," Call said. A few minutes later, as Jones basked in a rare opportunity to discuss his game with the media, Call walked by and said, "Hey, Robert - Geneva Steel Player of the Week."
"He (Jones) just went off, didn't he?" marveled senior guard Mark Heslop. "He was a dunking machine."
Jones, who also led the team with nine rebounds, wasn't the only little-used Cougar to have a big night. Kurt Christensen (20 minutes all season, 15 Tuesday), the fifth guard in a four-guard rotation, scored 10 points, and freshman Justin Weidauer (30 and 12) hit three of four field goals to total six points. Even Matt Lohner and Steve Waldrip, recently promoted from the junior varsity, saw action.
"It's too bad we didn't have this game earlier in the year," Reid said. "It would have helped our stats a lot."
Reid said he was pleased to be able to give his hard-working, practice-only players some game time but a little mournful about his seniors' last performance in Provo. "It's like part of your family leaving," he said.
"I've had a blast these last four years," said Heslop. "But it's kind of sad to think that's the last time I'll walk out on that floor."
It's not Heslop's last appearance as a Cougar, of course. Saturday night, BYU, now 21-6, makes its annual short road trip to Salt Lake City to play the Utes. Next week the Cougs will be at Colorado State for the WAC Tournament, and the week after that - probably - they'll be in Boise, Idaho, or Greensboro, N.C., for the opening of the NCAA Tournament.
"I hope we have several weeks left in our season," Heslop said.