COLORADO SPRINGS — BYU junior Rafael Araujo— who finished with game-highs of 31 points, nine rebounds and five steals — was certainly a center of attention in BYU's 56-43 victory Saturday at Air Force.
A center of attention, in fact, for three separate sets of basketball coaches.
Making 13-of-16 shots and 5-of-8 from the line, Araujo finished with more than half of BYU's points; teammate Mark Bigelow added 12 for a potent one-two scoring punch.
With the victory, BYU improves to 19-7 overall and 8-3 in the Mountain West Conference standings. The Cougars stand alone in second place, a step closer to league-leader Utah (21-5, 9-2), which lost at New Mexico, and a step beyond Wyoming (19-7, 7-4), which suffered a home defeat to San Diego State.
Watching Araujo struggle the past nine games with more than a fair share of shooting woes, foul trouble and lackluster effort, the BYU coaches have spent considerable time nurturing the JC transfer and Brazilian native — particularly coach Steve Cleveland in the better part of Wednesday's and Thursday's practices.
"There's a lot of things he's still learning," Cleveland said. "He's an emotional young man. He and I spent a lot of time together."
Meanwhile, the Air Force coaches were content to let Araujo be a focal point in the Cougars' attack, focusing instead on Bigelow, Travis Hansen and Ricky Bower.
"That was our plan — to not let Hansen shoot threes, to not let Bigelow shoot threes and to not let Bower shoot threes," said Falcon coach Joe Scott, explaining that recent game films suggested that while Araujo might get a handful of baskets inside, he would end up missing a good share of his shots.
And the third set of coaches? That would be the Brazilian national team head coach and two assistants who attended Saturday's game — the same trio who guided Araujo and Team Brazil in last summer's World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis.
They were in Colorado checking in with Brazil's Nene Hilario, who plays for the NBA's Denver Nuggets. They opted to take in BYU's game and watch Araujo — and fellow Brazilian Luiz Lemes, the reserve guard who played 16 minutes. Araujo didn't disappoint.
"I started with good shots at the beginning of the game, and I got my confidence," he said. "I was patient, I took care of the ball and I scored my points."
Did Cleveland know Saturday's game was one where Araujo would be so dominating?
"It was a game where we knew we were going to throw it in to him," he said.
And that was fine with Scott, who was willing to give up a little of Araujo's inside game for the prospects of more shooting struggles from the 6-foot-11 center.
"I've seen him miss them — point-blank shots. I've watched the films," said the Air Force coach, adding that in BYU's game at New Mexico Monday night, "I guarantee you, the guy will miss five shots."
Araujo did not suffer from a lack of shooting confidence, scoring six first-half baskets on a wide array of shots — spinning turnarounds, arching hooks and twisting layins. "He knew today — right from the start," bemoaned Scott.
Scott wasn't bothered so much about Araujo's point total as he was BYU's. "You hold a team to 56 points in your building and they only get 19 field goals — how can they win?" he asked. "I mean, how can they win with only 19 field goals."
One reason is the Scott's Falcons managed only 14 themselves on 36 attempts for 28.9 percent. And that includes a meager 4-of-20 shooting behind the arc.
Joel Gerlach's 10 points was the only double-figure scoring for Air Force (11-14, 2-10).
While Scott was bemoaning the lack of execution and energy with his players, Cleveland was crediting the Cougars defense, calling it the best performance against Air Force in his six-year tenure at BYU and singling out point guard Kevin Woodberry.
"There's nothing on that stat sheet, said Cleveland of Woodberry's zero points, two assists and three rebounds in 31 minutes, "but he never left Tim Keller."
One of the conference's top sharpshooters, Keller managed just nine points on 3-of-12 shooting, including 1-of-8 on treys.
BYU jumped out early, posting a nine-point lead after eight minutes before the Falcons drew to within four at 26-22 at halftime. In the first half, BYU shoot better from the floor — 10-of-19 for 52 percent — than its 4-of-8 from the line for 50 percent. Araujo scored 12 and Bigelow seven of the Cougars' 26 points.
In the second half, BYU slowly increased its lead, reaching double digits with 8:39 remaining and 12 points with 4:08 on an Araujo three-point play. The Falcons could draw no closer than the final seven-point margin.
NOTES: BYU plays its final regular-season road game Monday night at New Mexico, with the Lobos coming off the 76-69 upset of nationally ranked Utah . . . Hansen scored only eight points on 1-of-5 shooting and 6-of-8 from the line. It broke his string of 21 consecutive games scoring in double figures . . . Air Force center Tom Bellairs was taken to a local hospital after the game to have a hip injury evaluated . . . BYU outrebounded Air Force 29-19 . . . Despite only hitting 2-of-10 on 3-pointers, the Cougars shot 55.9 percent for the game . . . In their two games against BYU this season, Air Force is 9-of-53 on 3-pointers.