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No collapse for Cougars vs. Cowboys

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LAS VEGAS — Once again, BYU's Big Three came up big.

But don't forget about the Little Eight.

The Cougars' super-trio of Terrell Lyday, Mekeli Wesley and Trent Whiting handled the scoring, as usual, Friday night in the Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinals against Wyoming. Those other guys in Blue and White took care of the rest against the supposedly deeper and bigger Cowboys. The result? A 77-66 victory for BYU and a ticket to the MWC championship game tonight at 7 against the winner of the Utah-New Mexico contest, which finished late Friday night.

"It was a team effort," said BYU coach Steve Cleveland. "Our freshmen played a lot of minutes. We made mistakes, but we hung in there."

And, as BYU (23-8) has learned this season, hanging in there is the only way to beat Wyoming (20-9). The Cougars pounced on the Cowboys from the outset, took a big lead, and held on by their fingernails at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Remarkably, the Cougars never trailed and were ahead by as many as 18 in the second half — exactly the same margin BYU had on Wyoming in Laramie. Unlike that game, there was no collapse this time.

Lyday followed up his 25-point performance Thursday against Air Force by scoring a MWC Tournament-record 32 points. Wesley added 23 and Whiting 11. Together, they scored 66 points — matching the total of the entire Wyoming team. "They've got three seniors playing the way seniors are supposed to be playing," said Cowboy coach Steve McClain.

Meanwhile, guys like Nate Knight, Nathan Cooper, Travis Hansen, Eric Nielsen, Matt Montague, Jacob Chrisman, Derek Dawes and Dan Howard — yes, Dan Howard — played valuable minutes. This unheralded supporting cast set screens, rebounded, defended and kept the explosive Cowboys at bay.

"They've got a lot of big bodies to throw at us," said Wyoming star Josh Davis, referring to the 6-foot-9 Wesley, 6-10 Knight, 6-11 Dawes and 6-11 Howard. "They were better inside tonight."

Wyoming guard Brett McFall scored 19, but Davis, Marcus Bailey and Uche Nsonwu-Amadi struggled for much of the contest. Davis and Bailey finished with 14 points and Nsonwu-Amadi nine.

Earlier this week, the league's coaches named Wesley the player of the year, while the media selected Davis. Wesley ended the debate on Friday. Then again, someone could easily make a strong case for Lyday as MWC's best player.

"The one thing I worried about was Lyday getting hot early, and that's what happened," McClain said.

Wesley and Lyday poured in 30 of BYU's 34 second-half points. Lyday went 8-for-14 from the field, Wesley 8-for-15. "We've been carrying the team most of the season," Lyday said. "We want the ball in our hands to make plays. We have to take on that responsibility."

Early in the second half, Wesley connected on three consecutive 3-pointers to push BYU's lead to 18. But given the previous two games between these two teams, the Cougars never felt safe. Wyoming whittled BYU's lead to five with 3:30 left, but never got any closer.

The Little Eight made huge contributions in both the first and second halves when Wesley got caught in foul trouble. Wesley went to the bench with his fourth foul with 14 minutes remaining and the Cougars leading by 15 points.

Wyoming went on a 7-0 run with Wesley out of the contest, but the Cougars know it could have been worse. Within moments of returning to the game, Wesley made a layup to give the Cougars an eight-point cushion with 10:30 left. He played the rest of the contest without fouling out. "I told Mekeli to front, not to foul and let them score a layup," Cleveland said.

The Cowboys enjoyed an 8-0 spurt with under 10 minutes remaining, but Lyday calmly continued hitting jumpshots, 3-pointers and free throws. He was 13-for-14 from the free throw line. In fact, BYU, the nation's top free throw shooting team, made 11 of their final 12 free throws to close the game.

Of course, the Cougars were thrilled at the prospect of advancing to the tournament finals, with a shot at the NCAA Tournament a good possibility. But all they see is the one final hurdle in front of them.

"We deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament when we win the MWC Tournament," Cleveland said. "We have to take care of business (tonight). It's all we can control . . . There's no reason to celebrate. This thing is not over. We need to play our hearts out one more time."

"We want to win the game (tonight)," Wesley said, "and leave nothing to chance."

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com