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Strong defensive effort carries BYU past Saint Mary’s, 71-66

PROVO — It’s well-documented that BYU plays much better at home than on the road.

That was confirmed again Thursday night at the Marriott Center, where the Cougars defeated West Coast Conference nemesis Saint Mary’s, 71-66.

BYU earned this late-night, hard-fought win in large part to its defense. It was quite a stark contrast to what happened in Moraga on Jan. 5, when the Cougars lost by 22 points, 88-66, to the Gaels.

“It was a real quality win for our team. Our guys responded well to a disappointing outcome at their place," said coach Dave Rose. "We weathered a lot of storms. When you hold a team to 66 points and they get 17 offensive rebounds, that shows a little bit of your determination and grit.”

This time, BYU limited Saint Mary’s to 44 percent shooting from the field, including 5 of 20 from 3-point range. The Gaels had only five assists. Saint Mary's missed its first 13 3-pointers, and didn't make one until about seven minutes left in the game.

“It was unbelievable. It’s something I expect every game from our guys," forward Yoeli Childs, who scored a game-high 23 points to lead the Cougars, said of his team's defensive effort. "I think we did a great job of being locked in as a unit. When guys got beat, guys came over to help. Everyone made the extra play for each other and that was huge for us tonight.”

“We did a great job guarding as a team. But I thought tonight we did a really good job of making them uncomfortable," said guard TJ Haws, who scored 17. "A lot of their guys are very talented and we made them do things they don’t normally do or don’t want to do, forcing them to their off-hand, making them shoot challenging shots all night.”

Gavin Baxter chipped in 10 for BYU and made an impact both offensively and defensively throughout the contest.

Saint Mary’s got 19 points from Malik Fitts, 15 from Jordan Ford — holding him seven points under his season average — and 10 from Dan Fotu.

Going into Thursday’s showdown, Saint Mary’s had won six consecutive regular-season games against BYU. It marked the Cougars’ first win over the Gaels in Provo in three years.

How did it feel to secure a win against Saint Mary's?

“Amazing. I was saying in the locker room, it’s up there with beating Utah, beating those guys," Childs said. "We’ve had a tough run against those dudes and they’re a really tough team to beat. They slow the ball down. They make great decisions and they’re really well-coached. They execute on offense and make it really hard for you on defense. They’re a great team. It feels good to beat a great team.”

BYU improved to 13-9 overall, 5-2 in WCC play, while Saint Mary’s fell to 13-8 and 4-2.

BYU ended the first half on a 16-4 run and led by seven at halftime.

The Cougars opened the second half with a Haws 3-pointer that gave them a 10-point lead, 36-26. Moments later, BYU went up by 11 on a free throw by Childs.

Baxter, who started the second half in place of Luke Worthington, provided a big lift for the Cougars with big plays on both ends of the court with a steal here, a block there and rebounds everywhere. A put-back by Baxter gave the Cougars a 52-41 lead with 8:35 remaining.

But Saint Mary’s made its run. The Gaels missed their first 13 3-point attempts and didn’t make their first one until the 6:58 mark of the second half when Tanner Krebs sank one to cut their deficit to 56-47. Including Kreb’s three, Saint Mary’s hit three straight 3-pointers and cut a 12-point deficit, 56-44, to four points, 61-57, with four minutes remaining.

Then after a pair of free throws by Ford, it was 61-59, as part of a 10-0 Saint Mary’s run.

But the Cougars settled down, stopped the run, took a 67-60 lead on a dunk by Baxter, and closed out the game.

Saint Mary’s seemed to take control of the game early on behind the play of Fitts, who scored 10 of the Gaels’ first 16 points and was having his way with BYU.

Saint Mary’s had a five-point lead, 22-17, with a little less than six minutes remaining. But that’s when the Cougars imposed their will. After Haws was whistled for his second personal foul, relegating him to the bench for the rest of the half, BYU scored 10 consecutive points.

The run was sparked by strong play on the defensive end. On the offensive end, McKay Cannon drilled a 3-pointer, then Cannon had an impressive spin lay-up. That was followed by a resounding dunk by Childs, then a 3-pointer that saw his shot go in-and-out, go high in the air and settled in the bottom of the net.

At that point, the Cougars had a 27-24 advantage with three minutes left in the half.

But BYU wasn’t done yet.

The Cougars finished the half on a 16-4 run, capped by Childs taking an in-bounds pass lob and hitting a fallaway jumper as the buzzer sounded to give BYU a 33-26 lead at intermission.

BYU hosts Gonzaga next Thursday.