BYU (4-0) vs. Valparaiso (4-1)
Wednesday, 10 p.m. MST MGM Grand Garden Arena
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
LAS VEGAS — Valparaiso knocked off BYU, 72-70, last March in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City, ending the Cougars’ season.
Now the two teams meet again in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas Wednesday (10 p.m. MST, ESPN2) with the MGM Grand Main Event championship at stake.
BYU (4-0) throttled Saint Louis, 92-62, Monday night in the semifinals to advance to the title game, while Valparaiso (4-1) defeated Alabama, 68-60.
Before the Crusaders tipped off against the Crimson Tide in Monday’s late game, Cougar forward Kyle Davis was asked if he’d like to see Valpo again.
“Absolutely,” said Davis, who scored a team-high 22 points against the Billikens. “But we’d also love to play an SEC Alabama team. Either one. But it certainly would be nice to avenge the last loss of last season.”
“We’re happy to play whoever. We don’t care if it’s Valpo or Alabama,” said forward Jamal Aytes, who scored a career-high 12 points Monday. “We’re just happy to be in the championship game.”
At Madison Square Garden, BYU rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit and had an opportunity to win the game at the end when Chase Fischer’s desperation, potential game-winning, long 3-point attempt was blocked at the final buzzer by Valparaiso’s Shane Hammink.
But this BYU team is much different from last year’s. It’s no longer a squad that lives by the 3-pointer and dies by the 3-pointer.
A year ago, the Cougars had a losing record (7-8) when they shot 33 percent or less from 3-point territory. This year, BYU as a team is shooting 29 percent from the 3-point line and hasn’t shot better than 33 percent in any of its four games. The Cougars are shooting fewer 3s as well.
BYU is rolling with its inside-out game, with both guards and post players finding open teammates in the paint for high-percentage baskets.
Combined, Davis, Aytes, Eric Mika and Yoeli Childs combined to shoot 23 of 30 from the floor.
“The great thing is, no one can sag off this team. It creates a lot of one-on-one matchups for us. When we don’t have that one-on-one matchup, you dump it inside. It’s a fun brand of basketball,” Davis said. “The guards have bought into where once (the inside game) happens, they’re going to get shots, too. Coach says, ‘We’re going to pound the ball inside.’ But that also means T.J. (Haws) is going to drive in hard and get shots at the rim, and Nick (Emery), Elijah (Bryant) and L.J. (Rose). It’s not just Eric and I and Yoeli and the post players.”
When Mika left the game in the first half with foul trouble, Saint Louis battled back, but the Cougars withstood the rally thanks to the performances of their other big guys.
“(Davis) had a great night. He was on attack, he was confident,” Rose said. “Yoeli and Jamal came in, and it was really good for those two to play those quality, important minutes where they made a run at us and we made a run back at them. We went into halftime with a little bit of lead when Eric had only played six minutes. That was good for their confidence.”
The winner of the MGM Grand Main Event receives one of the most unusual trophies in college basketball — a championship belt patterned after those given after a boxing match or MMA fight.
“That would be cool,” Davis said.
The Cougars haven’t won a tournament in Las Vegas since claiming the Mountain West Conference tournament title in 2001.