In his first career start, freshman Fousseyni Traore helped BYU avoid a blue Christmas.

Blue, as in sad. Instead, the Cougars are returning to the mainland in a festive, joyous mood. 

“It’s a great day,” said coach Mark Pope, “and I’m proud of our guys.”

Two days after suffering a disappointing setback against Vanderbilt, Traore recorded his first career double-double with 19 points, on 6 of 7 shooting from the field, and 13 rebounds as the Cougars held on to defeat Liberty 80-75 and claim third-place in the Diamond Head Classic at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, Hawaii on Christmas Day. 

For his efforts, Traore was named to the All-Tournament team and received a major award — an Outrigger oar.

Yes, Fouss was Hangin’ Loose in the Islands this week. In Thursday’s loss, he pulled down a career-high 15 rebounds.

“He just continues to impress. He’s just growing fast. He’s a humble, hungry, selfless guy that just wants to get better every single day,” Pope said of Traore. “And he’s helping us. It’s interesting because it’s of necessity — he should not have to do this right now. He shouldn’t have to be carrying this burden but he’s sure carrying like a pro. He’s been awesome.”

Against the Flames (8-6), Traore came through time and time again on a day that saw the Cougars (11-3) make just 3 of 19 3-pointers. 

Traore, a 6-foot-6, 254-pound freshman with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, replaced fellow freshman Atiki Ally Atiki in the starting lineup and was tasked with manning the middle. Despite Traore’s success this season, putting a freshman in the starting lineup is not something Pope does without serious consideration. 

3 keys to BYU’s win against Liberty in the Diamond Head Classic

“You worry about putting them in situations where it’s going to set them back and mess with their confidence or put a lot of pressure on them,” Pope said. “Fouss is like, ‘Coach, why are worried about that? Just let me go do my thing.’”

When he learned he was going to start, Traore wasn’t nervous. He was excited. “I was ready for it,” he said. In the first half, he had 11 points and eight boards.

While BYU struggled from 3-point range, it knocked down 29 of 35 free throws. Traore was 7 of 8 from the free throw line on the day. 

Meanwhile, Liberty was just 12 of 18 from the free throw line, and that disparity at the charity stripe contributed significantly to the outcome. The Cougars drilled 7 of 8 from the charity stripe over the final 24 seconds to help seal the win. 

“He just continues to impress. He’s just growing fast. He’s a humble, hungry, selfless guy that just wants to get better every single day,” — BYU coach Mark Pope on Fousseyni Traore

In an unfortunate twist, the Diamond Head Classic championship game between Stanford and Vanderbilt, which was scheduled to take place after the BYU-Liberty game, was cancelled due to health and safety protocols within the Cardinal program. That news broke during halftime of the BYU-Liberty game. 

The Commodores, who defeated the Cougars 69-67 Thursday night, were declared the Diamond Head Tournament champion. 

And once again, BYU bounced back from a loss. In three seasons under Pope, the Cougars still have never lost back-to-back regular season games. 

Traore wasn’t the only one to propel BYU against Liberty. Guard Te’Jon Lucas scored 11 points and dished out a game-high seven assists, including several to Traore. 

“Te’Jon can find anybody. He always finds me,” Traore said. “It gave me some easy baskets.”

As for that oar, Traore said he wanted Lucas to get part of it. 

“We’re going to split that in two, one for Te’Jon and one for me,” Traore said. 

Trevin Knell scored 15 points, including a 3-pointer with just under eight minutes remaining. But Pope credited Knell for doing a lot on both ends of the court to help the Cougars win a hard-fought contest. 

“People want to write (Knell) off as a 3-point shooting specialist. He’s got so much downhill game,” Pope said. “I was super proud of him. In some moments that were full of pressure, he had the courage to get downhill and do it safely.”

Added Pope: “We had a significantly lengthy and semi-emotional team gathering after the Vanderbilt game. One of the things we talked about was finding a new focus on protecting the ball. That tends to have guys be hyper-conservative and you see the maturity and growth in Trevin Knell. For him to come in here and make forceful plays downhill, trusting himself that he could put himself in harm’s way and still make great decisions and come up with big plays, I thought he was terrific tonight.”

A couple of days after watching Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr. score 23 points, BYU had another tough defensive challenge Saturday against Liberty guard Darius McGhee, who entered the game leading the nation in 3-point attempts (138) and No. 2 in 3-pointers made (52). 

McGhee finished with 29 points on 4 of 11 shooting from 3-point territory. He was named the Diamond Head Classic’s Most Outstanding Player after setting a new tournament record for total points scored. He poured in 41 in a loss to Stanford. 

“When you face a player that’s unique like him, just in terms of shot selection and his capability as a scorer, he’s like a college version of (Golden State Warriors superstar) Steph (Curry),” Pope said of McGhee. “He’s dangerous in a lot of ways. He’s so explosive downhill. It forces you to guard in a different way.”

For BYU, a week after drilling 16 of 26 3-pointers in a win against Weber State, it missed its first 12 3-pointers against Liberty. Alex Barcello hit the team’s first with 18:47 remaining in the game. Barcello scored nine points in 23 minutes of play. 

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And after the Cougars gave up 19 turnovers against Vanderbilt — they found themselves too much in the Christmas spirit of giving that night, apparently — they had only 10 against the Flames. 

“It is a defining feature of what this team is going to have if we’re successful,” Pope said. “It’s got to build on the foundation of a few principles. One of those major principles is protecting this ball.”

BYU hosts Westminster next Wednesday in its non-conference finale. The Cougars open West Coast Conference play next Saturday at Portland. 

TIP-INS: BYU football coach Kalani Sitake was in attendance at Saturday’s game … The Cougars shot 60% (12 of 20) in the after shooting only 38% (12 of 31) in the first half … BYU forward Gideon George scored nine points and collected four rebounds off the bench ... Seneca Knight finished with eight points off the bench. 

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