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BYU’s Elijah Bryant will need to bring it in Las Vegas

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Elijah Bryant is the heart and soul. – Mark Durrant

LAS VEGAS — Elijah Bryant is the heart of BYU’s basketball team and the weighty elements of his captaincy will be sorely needed by the team in Las Vegas this weekend.

If you look at this past year, the Cougars were in need of a lot of pieces heading into this 22-win season, especially after the departures of Eric Mika and Nick Emery.

What Dave Rose was left with was a young team with no seniors and a squad crying out for someone to take charge.

Just named a WCC first-team player, along with teammate Yoeli Childs, Bryant became that man.

Former BYU star and multiple NCAA tourney participant Mark Durrant does color commentary for KSL broadcasts. He too sees Bryant as the biggest key to these Cougars.

“Elijah Bryant is the heart and soul. I’d say he’s been the most consistent performer and the team feeds off him more than anybody else,” said Durrant. “He’s able to get other people involved as well as get his own shots. As a player, we’d look to that kind of guy to make it happen for us, whether it was Russell Larson or Marty Haws. He is that type of player who can lift up everybody’s game.”

One of the mysteries of this season is what could have been if Bryant had been the guy who attempted that potential game-winning shot against Saint Mary’s in Provo or the last-gasp shot against Pacific — both BYU losses.

We will never know.

And, yes, I know, defenses key on him in those situations and others have to step up.

Bryant has been clutch night after night. And he delivered in that remarkable comeback overtime win against San Francisco with a game-tying trey with four seconds left in regulation.

Legendary coach Geno Auriemma, who coaches UConn's women's team, told his players the difference between a really good player and a great player is the great player doesn’t get tired.

“They just don’t,” said Auriemma. “And what makes the difference is when the good player gets tired, the great player kicks their butt. That’s the difference. So every day, you’re working on that. We can coach ball screens, passing to the post, cutting and playing defense, but we aren’t here to coach your energy level, that’s a given. You wouldn’t be here if we had to coach that.”

Time and again, Bryant’s energy level has surpassed that of others on the floor.

Bryant has the ability to do so much for the Cougars. He can bomb from the outside and has been a consistent 3-point threat. He can drive, get to the basket and finish. His size and strength give him a Kyle Collinsworth-type presence inside the paint. He hits floaters, draws fouls, is deadly from the line, and finds ways to score when his outside shot abandons him.

If you seek the engine that has pushed BYU basketball the past 12 months, Bryant is your diesel Cummins with turbo power.

Bryant’s influence on this team began more than a year ago when he almost gave up the game because of knee injuries.

In response to that, Rose and his staff watched as Bryant took on a self-motivating role to work his tail off in the offseason, going to the new practice annex at all hours of the day and night to work on his game.

In that process, Bryant worked to perfect the things he could do to detour the things he struggled with and it made him a better player.

Bryant has moxie. Some call it swagger, an attitude, a drive. Many of his teammates show that in spurts, but he seems to have a fountain from which it flows constantly.

Bryant had many outstanding games in his first nine WCC outings this year. On most nights, his efficiency was remarkable. He produced 4-of-7 and 9-of-11 shooting nights.

He was a machine.

The second time around the WCC, opponents began playing him differently, designing defenses to limit his shots, his touches, his driving lanes. When he tried to get to the rim and draw fouls, there were head-scratching times in crucial minutes when he came up empty, like drives during the tight game at Gonzaga.

In Las Vegas, Bryant has to bring his toolbox, do his thing. But if BYU is to survive Saturday against San Diego and make it to the semifinals Monday, the rest of the Cougars have to force the defense to respect them. BYU can't make it to Monday unless other players besides Bryant and Childs are producers.

And yes, these other guys do have different roles and are not usually the first or second options. But Rose’s system is getting folks open shots.

Bryant has become BYU’s man for all seasons. In his quiet, humble way, he’s carried a big stick.

This BYU team has to gather and wield a lot of sticks in Vegas. They must reset and be Bryant-like.

Or it’s a team that’ll go home and miss some pretty good buffets and maybe even the possibility of making the NIT.