LAS VEGAS — Following an arduous, two-week road trip featuring five consecutive heart-thumping must-wins, the BYU Cougars can finally relax. They can return home, kick back and watch a little television this afternoon.
They can prepare to do some dancing, too.
With a 69-65 victory over New Mexico Saturday night, the Cougars claimed the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship. Now, they await the forthcoming automatic berth to the Big Dance from the NCAA Selection Committee. The selection show airs at 4:30 p.m. on Ch. 2.
"It feels like I had weights on my back for a while," said guard Terrell Lyday after beating the Lobos. "They're gone now."
"How we did this at the end of the season, winning five games on the road," said coach Steve Cleveland, "makes this that much more special."
How big a deal is this? CBS, the network that owns exclusive rights to the NCAA Tournament, plans to have TV cameras in Provo to show the Cougars' reaction when they receive their bid.
Because BYU (24-8 overall) does not play on Sundays, the Cougars are guaranteed to pack their bags for one of four Thursday-Saturday regional sites. In the West Region, it's either Boise, Idaho, or San Diego, Calif. In the East Region, it's Long Island, N.Y., or Greensboro, N.C.
It's been six long years since BYU has been in the NCAAs, so, naturally, they don't care where they go. Even if it were outer Mongolia.
After all, just four years ago, the Cougars were the laughingstock of college basketball in the wake of a gruesome 1-25 season. Nobody's laughing anymore. But BYU is doing a lot of smiling these days.
"We worked for four years to get to this point," said senior forward Mekeli Wesley, who scored 30 points and was named the MWC Tournament Most Valuable Player. "We wouldn't be denied tonight. This is a great moment for BYU. It's a Cinderella story. It would have been hard to imagine we would be here four years ago."
When the final buzzer sounded, the Cougars celebrated on the floor of the Thomas & Mack Center. Later, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson presented the tournament title trophy to the BYU team.
And to think the never-say-die, fourth-seeded Lobos almost spoiled all that.
It wasn't until New Mexico guard Marlon Parmer's 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds remaining bounded off the rim and into the hands of BYU's Trent Whiting that the Cougars could exhale.
"It seemed like the ball stayed up in the air for a long time," Wesley said.
Whiting was fouled and he knocked down both free throws to give BYU a four-point edge with five seconds showing on the clock. Parmer missed another 3-pointer as time expired.
Parmer did drill a 3-pointer with 18.3 seconds left that cut BYU's lead to 66-65. The Lobos immediately fouled Wesley, who made one of two free throws. When UNM got the ball back, Parmer attempted his 3-pointer at the top of the key, but it missed.
In the first two games of this tournament, Lyday had carried the Cougars with his offense. His role on Saturday was different. "I told Terrell before the game he wasn't going to score 25 points tonight," Cleveland said, "but that he had some defensive responsibilities on Parmer."
Parmer finished with 14 points, as did Lobo guard Ruben Douglas. The Lobos, who shot just 39 percent from the floor compared to 57 percent for BYU, stayed in the game by dominating the boards. UNM outrebounded BYU 36-23 and had 19 offensive rebounds, compared to three for the Cougars.
But in crunch time, which seemed to crop up a lot, Wesley couldn't miss. He made 11 of 12 shots from the floor. "Sometimes you get into a groove and it feels like anything you throw up is going to go in," Wesley said.
During one stretch in the second half, Wesley scored 15 consecutive points for BYU. He played most of the final 6:30 with four fouls.
Now it's on to the NCAAs. Too bad for the Cougars one of the NCAA regional destinations is not Las Vegas. They enjoyed quite a week in the city of lights.
NOTES: The MWC's all-tournament team consisted of Lyday and Wesley of BYU, Josh Davis of Wyoming, and New Mexico's Parmer and Wayland White . . . The Cougars finished the tournament shooting 61.5 percent from 3-point range . . . Lyday (68), Wesley (66) and Whiting (43) combined for 177 of BYU's 215 total points (82 percent) during the tournament.