Guard Alex Barcello showed, once again, why he is the engine of this BYU team.

In a physical, hard-fought battle with Cleveland State in the season-opener Tuesday night at the Marriott Center, Barcello wasn’t going to allow the Cougars to lose.

Barcello scored a game-high 24 points, including 13 over the final 10 minutes — while knocking down a perfect 13 of 13 from the free throw line on the night — to lead BYU to a grueling 69-59 victory. 

“He’s a vet’s vet … Alex Barcello is a star. He’s one of six returning All-Americans in the entire country,” said coach Mark Pope. “He’s shown us over and over and over again that he’s got some moxie and some savvy out there on the floor. He did that for us a bunch last year. He just gets the job done.”

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Barcello set a school record, scoring 24 points on just six field goal attempts. Robbie Reid held the previous record, having scored 23 on six field goals in 1993.

Barcello buried a couple of big jumpers in the closing minutes that gave the Cougars some much-needed breathing room in a game that was close throughout. 

“A couple of my teammates came to me and told me to make a play. I feel really thankful to have teammates that believe in me. I believe in each one of them from the moon and back,” Barcello said. “We have such a great group of guys. We’re continuing to build our chemistry. My mindset was, these guys have my back and they trust me to make a play. I realized I had a  mismatch and I attacked it.”

Meanwhile, guard Spencer Johnson came off the bench to score 13 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. With a little more than two minutes remaining, Johnson blocked a shot by Cleveland State’s Tre Gomillion and then grabbed the rebound. He was fouled and hit a free throw that put the Cougars up 63-56.  

“It’s great when you’ve got guys like Spencer. We have guys that are built for these big moments,” Barcello said. “For him to get that block and come up with a rebound and then go bang his free throws. It’s fun to play with guys that don’t shy away from it. They go make a play. That’s what Spencer did. That’s what a lot of our guys did tonight. That’s why we came out with a ‘W’.”

“He’s a vet’s vet … Alex Barcello is a star.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

Pope was grateful to have a player with Johnson’s experience and knowledge of his system to draw upon on the bench. 

“He had back-to-back buckets in the first half that were really important and he hit a couple of huge 3s,” he said. “He’s such a force to be reckoned with  on the defensive end. He wants to play more than anybody. But his minutes sometimes can be a little sporadic. He’s like, ‘Coach, you give me the minutes you’ve got and I’m going to perform.’ He was great on both ends of the ball tonight. I was super pleased with his effort.”

Johnson made the most of his opportunities. 

“I felt like I took what came to me. I didn’t try to force anything,” he said. “I was fortunate to be able to  score 13 but more importantly, we came out with the win.”

Over the final four minutes, BYU surrendered only one field goal to the Vikings. 

“Our guys did an unbelievable job of making them play one-on-five, not one-on-one,” Pope said. “Our defensive effort was off-the-charts down the stretch.”

In his official BYU debut, freshman forward Fousseyni Traore scored five points, grabbed eight rebounds and recorded three blocked shots. 

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“He’s going to be super fun, isn’t he? He’s the most humble human being. He fits in in our locker room,” Pope said. “He doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know yet, which makes it super fun. He’s really smart and he’s picked things up so fast. He’s going to become a big-time player.”

The Cougars acknowledged that they have a lot to work on before next Friday’s game against San Diego State. But an experienced, disruptive Cleveland State team provided them the kind of preseason test they needed. 

The Vikings won the Horizon League last year and played in the NCAA Tournament. 

“It’s why we got them. Because they’re terrifying. They won their league, they won their tournament, they have every single player back,” Pope said. “They believe they’re going to win every game … They’re a super disruptive team. It’s a team that’s really hard to face early in the season when you’re still trying to figure out who you are. For all those reasons, this was a huge win for us against a terrific team. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys.”

It was a game that featured 41 personal fouls, which made it difficult for BYU to find its rhythm offensively. 

“It’s not a normal game. Cleveland State’s a really good team,” Barcello said. ‘But we did a good job of battling through that when we didn’t feel like we normally do and how we mesh on the offensive side of the ball … We just didn’t feel ourselves the entire game. I’m happy that we’re 1-0. And we have a lot to improve on.”

BYU hosts San Diego State Friday.