PROVO — Mark Pope’s BYU squad had to go to the toolbox to find a way to stave off old rival San Diego State on Friday night.
The Cougars did it with rebounds, free throws and a clutch bomb from senior Alex Barcello on a night they couldn’t buy a 3-pointer.
Te’Jon Lucas and Caleb Lohner buried five straight free throws and Barcello added 17 points to lift BYU over the Aztecs 66-60 in a defensive slugfest that was tied with three minutes to play.
Neither SDSU nor BYU could get into an offensive flow most of the game. There were fouls and most passes were contested as both teams played close, intense, physical ball.
The fray had a postseason feeling to it, a serious competition.
“It seems early to have this the second game of the season, but it just makes it awesome, doesn’t it?” said Pope.
“We knew we had to win on the glass because (SDSU) is an elite, elite, I mean elite rebounding team. I am so proud of the 42-38 rebounding edge,” he said.
He also demanded his team protect the ball.
“The second thing is to protect the ball, to only have 11 turnovers, just four in the second half with the pressure and exertion San Diego State brings? And to have a young front line out there? It’s just going to speak to Alex Barcello and what Te’Jon Lucas did out there.”
“There’s a reason we scheduled this game,” said Pope after he watched his young front line take on a second NCAA Tournament team to begin the season.
The Cougars take on nationally-ranked Oregon on Tuesday.
While the Cougars held a lead for the majority of the game and struggled to make 3-point shots even when open (4 of 18), the senior Barcello made the bucket of the game, a corner 3 with three minutes to play with the game knotted at 54.
Barcello took a pass from Lucas and quick-fired with SDSU guard Adam Seiko in his face. Barcello felt that Seiko got a piece of his hand just as he shot the ball.
“But I’ll leave the calls up to the refs,” he said.
That bomb gave the Cougars a 57-54 lead which they never relinquished.
“He is a pro,” Pope said of Barcello. “He’s a real pro. I’m telling you, this Alex Barcello is a pro. I’m not an authority in the world on everything basketball, but I actually have had some experience in this game of basketball and Barcello is a pro. He’s learning to lose himself in this incredible experience of basketball.
“The last two games, he made shots most people would like to make in their careers and Alex is like, ‘OK, I’ll do it now.’ I must be an incredible coach.”
Pope revealed afterward that he has been working hard on his locker room, trying to get it to feel right. He said his team has faced many distractions and it’s been a challenge for some on the team to look inward.
“But when you can face inward and your eyes can stay inward, something magical can happen. But there are very few teams that can have the majority of the push inwards. That may sound trite, but that is everything.
“We have some guys who are really trying and fighting to keep their eyes inwards and in this win, we had players do that. I learned tonight that we can do it,” said Pope.
The Cougars were just 4 of 18 from distance, but Pope said his team had open looks and just missed.
“To go out and not make shots and have a team just say to themselves they are going to win anyway, that’s what great teams do,” he said.
The first half was a defensive chess match as the teams struggled to create consistent offense. BYU led for more than 13 minutes and led 32-30 on a pair of 3-point buckets in the final two minutes by Barcello and Lucas.
San Diego State returned a veteran team that helped the Aztecs win the Mountain West Conference and league tournament a year ago. Since the 2018-20 season, SDSU had 54-7 record coming into the Marriott Center, behind only national champions Baylor and Gonzaga.
Pope used a tag team of Gideon George, Seneca Knight and Spencer Johnson to slow down Aztec star shooter Matt Bradley, who had eight points on just four field goals. SDSU’s other highly-regarded guard, Trey Pulliam, had 12 points. Center Nathan Mensah led all scorers with 18 points.
Barcello and Lucas combined for 30 points.
Freshman Fousseyni Traore and Lohner each had eight rebounds. Lohner had key rebounds on both ends of the court in the final minutes to make a huge difference for the Cougars. Those two Cougars tied SDSU’s most physical player on the court, Mensah (eight rebounds).
“You aren’t going to beat a team like San Diego State by going 4 of 18 from beyond the arc,” Pope said, “but this team did.”