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Big-time game truly missed big-time star

Big time game truly missed big time star

PROVO — In the annals of BYU basketball — and anyone else's, for that matter — there is always a list of nice things to see that never materialized.

It would have been nice, for instance, to see what Shawn Bradley would have done, had he stayed in college. It would have been nice to see Mike Maxwell with two good knees.

And it would have been nice to see what would have happened if Jimmer Fredette hadn't been caught between nauseated and comatose at the end of New Mexico's 83-81 win over the Cougars on Saturday.

No Fredette at the end of a game with national implications?

Isn't that like wrapping up an Indiana Jones film with Indy on a bathroom break?

The fight for first place in the Mountain West Conference ended with a whump and a sigh at the Marriott Center. The whump came on the game's last shot, when BYU's Noah Hartstock went inside for the tying bucket. But Darington Hobson swatted it into different calling area.

There was a flurry of late action, including an in-bounds pass by BYU with less than a second remaining, but not another chance.

The sigh came from the sellout crowd, all 22,644 of them.

The Lobos had escaped with — seized, actually — a win. That assured at least a tie for first place in the conference.

"We had a chance to win it, but we were unable to do so," said BYU coach Dave Rose.

He, too, had to be wondering privately what might have been if Fredette had been around to run the final play.

By most accounts, it has been a great year for BYU. The Cougars climbed as high as No. 11 nationally in one poll, matched against No. 10-ranked New Mexico. They're a lock for the NCAA Tournament, with 26 wins and only four losses. All season, this has looked like the BYU team that might finally break the post-season hex. You know the one: the NCAA Tournament whammy that has kept the Cougars from winning since suspenders were in style.

This, it seemed, would finally be the year.

But along the way, there has been that one ongoing worry: Fredette's health.

It's not like he's weakling. He's strong enough to carry a couple of medium-sized boulders to the basket and still get the and-one. But he has lived since just after Christmas in a strange place. He came down with mononucleosis after scoring 49 points against Arizona (boy, what a sendoff) and missed games against Eastern New Mexico and UTEP, both BYU wins. He played in the key game in Provo against UNLV but lasted only 25 minutes — 10 fewer than BYU would have liked.

In that game, he wore a long-sleeve tee underneath his uniform to ward off the shakes.

"Well, I think we've been through that, before, this season and were actually able to win that — and it felt better," said Rose, referring to the Jan. 6 win over UNLV.

On Saturday, the problem came without warning. Whether it was related to the mono, Rose didn't say, only that Fredette had flu-like symptoms. This much was clear: Jimmer the Destroyer had become Jimmer the Unsteady. He played the first half but couldn't do much, taking seven shots, making three.

He sat for a good 62 seconds into the second half and spent the rest of the afternoon looking wan, while backup Michael Loyd Jr. had the game of his career (19 points, 8-9 shooting).

So in a statistical sense, they barely noticed Fredette was gone.

In a practical sense, they were hamstrung by the absence.

As outstanding as Loyd was, they also needed Fredette down the stretch. He wasn't there when the Cougars went up by three with 14:49 to go, gone when Jonathan Tavernari and Tyler Haws missed back-to-back 3s in the final minute.

Most of all, he wasn't there to run the offense, to draw-and-kick, to make the winning basket.

That's not to say BYU lacked effort. It's just that you always want the other guys fretting (Fredetting?) about your star. Instead, he was on the sidelines, looking like he needed an IV.

The loss might have cost the Cougars the conference championship, but it didn't cost them a tournament bid. That's not the worry.

The worry is the thought of going into the post-season with their best shot at winning on the shoulders of a guy who might yet end up calling in sick.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com