NEW ORLEANS — For the BYU basketball program, the stage hasn't been bigger, its star hasn't shined brighter, and the stakes haven't been higher.
At least not for three decades.
The No. 3-seeded Cougars collide with No. 2 Florida tonight (5:27 p.m. MT, TBS) in the Southeast Region semifinals at the New Orleans Arena, with a coveted spot in the Elite Eight hanging in the balance.
BYU (32-4), relishing its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1981, is looking to equal the Elite Eight feat of the Danny Ainge-led team that knocked off Notre Dame with Ainge's dramatic, memorable, coast-to-coast dash in the waning seconds in '81.
"I think it's the biggest play in BYU basketball history," said current Cougar superstar Jimmer Fredette. "He got the ball, went the full length of the court and through guys and then getting to the last second and finger-rolling and making it. I've seen it many times, and we've talked to Danny in July and he's a great guy and he's the best basketball player that's ever played here, and his legacy will always be here. He has the biggest shot of all time, so hopefully we can match that and make it to where they made it."
Regardless of what happens tonight, Fredette has already established his legacy at BYU, said assistant coach Dave Rice.
"We've got two jerseys hanging in the rafters of the Marriott Center," Rice said, referring to Kresimir Cosic (11) and Ainge (22). "I think in addition to 11 and 22, 32 (Fredette's number) needs to be hanging up there, too. He's meant that much to our program. He's become the face of college basketball and he's helped take our program, along with the other guys, to a whole other level."
While Fredette has scored 32 and 34 points, respectively, in NCAA Tournament wins over Wofford and Gonzaga, the Cougars enjoyed contributions from multiple players as well.
"(Fredette's teammates) put a high premium on winning and they know the best way for us to win is for Jimmer to lead the way and those guys to follow and do their individual jobs," Rice said. "It was a collaborative team effort to beat Gonzaga like we did. It took everyone."
To defeat the Southeastern Conference regular-season champion Florida (28-7) and reach the Elite Eight, the formula likely will have to be similar.
"I believe that it's one of the strengths of our team that we've had guys that have stepped up all year long, and we'll need that to happen on Thursday in order to be successful," said BYU coach Dave Rose.
"We have to rebound," said senior guard Jackson Emery. "We've got to fly around and not let (Florida) get open shots. They're good shooters as well. They have a very good, experienced guard line as well."
"We've got to play our game, play our style," said senior forward Logan Magnusson. "We've got to get out and run. We've done it all year long and if we do that again, I think we'll be alright."
Gators coach Billy Donovan watched Fredette torch his team for 37 points last year in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Donovan certainly knows how dangerous Fredette is when he has the ball in his hands.
"There's certain guys that have an ability to put the ball in the basket, and he's got the ability to put the ball in the basket in a lot of different ways — runners, off-balance shots, fadeaways, post-up, drives to the basket, and deep, deep 3s," Donovan said. "He has a knack for putting the ball in the basket and he can do it at a very high level."
Meanwhile, Donovan said, the Cougars are more than a one-man show.
"They're getting 80 points a game. It's because of the other guys around him and that's what makes them such a great team is you may look at the scoring differential, but in a lot of ways, they're balanced," Donovan said.
"People always underestimate everyone on their team," said Florida forward Chandler Parsons. "I think we've got a good understanding going in there how good they are from playing them last year (a 99-92 double-overtime loss in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament). We're not just focused on Jimmer. We're focused on their entire team."
BYU has a chance to make history again tonight. And while Magnusson calls reaching the Sweet 16 "phenomenal," he and his teammates are not ready for this thrilling ride to end yet.
"This is what we dreamed about," he said. "It's what we worked for all year long, since last summer. We've been preparing to get as far as we can. We deserve it. We don't want to stop now. We want to push ourselves to get better. That's what you have to do in the NCAA Tournament."
Video Courtesy of KSL.com