Because of its grinding, plodding pace, its defensive-minded style of play and a propensity for scoring droughts as well as atrocious shooting, USF is always bound to produce a somewhat ugly game, confirming what BYU expected Wednesday night in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.
And this one was as ugly at times as a one-eyed, three-legged pig in a hula shirt.
The Cougars entered the night averaging 77 points a game this season, and they finished way below their average in a 54-39 victory over the Bulls.
Not surprisingly, it was BYU’s lowest-scoring game of the season, but the Cougars did clinch their 10th win of the season while advancing to Thursday’s semifinals of the tournament.
“I was proud of our guys, how they managed the frustration that South Florida can cause,” said coach Mark Pope. “They kept moving the ball and kept fighting. It was a great win.”
BYU (10-2) hit 16 of 26 3-pointers in its previous game last Saturday at Weber State, but Wednesday, it managed to make just 6 of 22 from distance against USF.
The Cougars shot just 36% overall from the floor.
“We knew coming in, and we talked about it a lot, that, hey, there would be stretches where they just get stops three or four or five times,” Pope said of USF.
“That’s what they do with every single team. They’re a really talented, long, defensive team. The key was that they didn’t get us rushed or sped up. I thought our guys did a great job of forcefully continuing to try and trust what we do and how we do it, and it worked out for us.”
USF hit only 16 of 62 field goal attempts on the night (26%) and just 2 of 21 (9.5%) from 3-point territory — 0 of 9 in the second half.
The Cougars outrebounded the Bulls 48-30, with plenty of rebounds to be had because of the high volume of missed shots.
USF’s pace is one of the slowest in the country, and it is one of the lowest-scoring teams in the country. USF (4-6) also entered the game shooting just 23.8% from 3-point range, among the lowest in the nation.
Against BYU, the Bulls didn’t have one player score in double figures, and they couldn’t crack the 40-point mark.
As for the Cougars, Fousseyni Traore and Gideon George came off the bench to score a game-high 11 points apiece.
Traore also collected nine rebounds, while George nailed 3 of 5 3-pointers.
Caleb Lohner grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds to go along with nine points. Alex Barcello added 10 points — all in the first half — and Te’Jon Lucas dished out a game-high seven assists.
“Caleb’s poise was as good as it’s been all season,” Pope said. “Fouss is coming along. He just keeps getting better every day.”
Offensively, this game, overall, was a slog.
BYU missed 9 of its first 12 shots and made only 1 of its first 7 from 3-point range, but late in the half, Barcello scored eight consecutive points, including back-to-back 3s, as part of a key run.
The Cougars ended the half outscoring the Bulls 16-4 to seize a 31-22 halftime edge, giving them their biggest lead of the game at that point. Seneca Knight made a contested layup at the first-half buzzer.
Then BYU converted just 3 of its first 17 shots in the second half.
“This is a great defensive team,” Pope said of USF. “They’re really, really long, they’re really athletic and they’re disciplined.”
The Bulls cut the deficit to just five, 38-33, with 11:12 remaining.
But that’s when the Cougars scored seven straight, including a 3-pointer by George. Another George 3 with 3:58 left lifted BYU to a 13-point advantage.
The Cougars led by as many as 17 late in the game as they outscored the Bulls 16-6 over the final 11 minutes.
Barcello was whistled for his fourth foul with seven minutes remaining and didn’t return to the game, but BYU was able to close out the win without him.
“Sometimes those things are a gift,” Pope said. “It saved Alex’s legs a little bit. It’s going to be different guys every single night. Different guys can finish games, and we saw that tonight.”
USF scored only two field goals over the final six minutes, which is what you’d expect from a team that relies on a plodding, grinding pace and a propensity for scoring droughts and atrocious shooting.
The Cougars take on the winner of Wednesday’s late game between Hawaii and Vanderbilt Thursday night in the Diamond Head semifinals.