BYU played three games in four days during the Diamond Head Classic and earned a third-place finish with a hard-fought 80-75 victory over Liberty on Christmas Day.

The Cougars finished with a 2-1 record in the eight-team tournament, which also included a 54-39 win over South Florida and a 69-67 setback against tournament champion Vanderbilt.

But coach Mark Pope is evaluating a longer stretch of the calendar, one that saw BYU play eight of nine games away from home, starting with a road win at Utah a month ago on Nov. 27.

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“Eight of nine games away from home. I told the guys that I don’t know of any team in the top 30 that’s had that type of schedule,” Pope said. “For these guys to get through this gauntlet, it’s been really taxing in a bunch of ways. And to do it without the roster we thought we would have to start the season and keep fighting is really impressive.”

The Cougars (11-3) host Westminster next Wednesday in their non-conference finale. They open West Coast Conference play next Saturday, on New Year’s Day, at Portland. 

Certainly, BYU has been battle-tested in the preseason. The Cougars have posted a 6-1 record against teams that played in last year’s NCAA Tournament. 

“We have a really good staff … they are doing an unbelievable job,” Pope said. “The locker room is good. The locker room is a tribute to these players because the players are the ones that build the locker room. These players have a chance to grow themselves into a really special team.”

“For these guys to get through this gauntlet, it’s been really taxing in a bunch of ways. And to do it without the roster we thought we would have to start the season and keep fighting is really impressive.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

Over the past month, BYU has dealt with the loss of two key players for the season — Gavin Baxter and Richard Harward.

While trying to compensate for that void, freshman Fousseyni Traore has stepped up. In his first career start Saturday against Liberty, Traore recorded his first career double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds. 

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The Cougars have suffered some tough defeats against Utah Valley University, Creighton and Vanderbilt. 

But overall, Pope likes where his team is going into WCC play. 

“If you had told me that all that had gone down and we were sitting where we are right now, I’d be like, ‘Let’s go.’ That doesn’t mean we haven’t had some disappointments,” he said after his team beat Liberty.

“Vanderbilt was super disappointing and Creighton was disappointing and Utah Valley was disappointing. This game is not a game of perfection. It’s why it’s a perfect Christmas Day game. You’re not graded on perfection, you’re graded on growth through the course of a college basketball season … In basketball, what matters is how fast can you get better? For each of the little setbacks that our team has taken, we’ve got significantly better. That’s a credit to the staff and the team. We’ve got to keep moving in that direction. I’m so excited — we’ve got an in-state game against Westminster that we need to prepare for — then we get to start this conference season and see how much we’ve improved.”

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