SAN FRANCISCO — BYU’s weekend began with a humbling loss at No. 2 Gonzaga, and then with a little less than 14 minutes left in Saturday night’s game at San Francisco, the situation looked bleak.
The Cougars trailed by 10 points and the Dons seemed to be hitting their stride after a poor-shooting first half.
But this was exactly the type of scenario that BYU coach Mark Pope had been preparing his team for since last summer, and it required all 40 minutes and a complete team effort.
BYU clawed its way back into the game — finally retaking the lead for good with 1:41 remaining — and then held on in dramatic fashion for a 71-69 victory at War Memorial Gym.
“These guys, you think about the leadership on this team and their ability to absorb frustration and just keep fighting and keep fighting and keep fighting. It takes everybody,” Pope said.
“We’re down 10 and we’re kind of looking around, just talking about fight, fight, fight, fight. Everyone’s tired of us talking about ‘turning frustration into fight.’ This was an unbelievable example of it. These are wins that are super inspiring and super special.”
Seeing how dejected the Cougars were after the 26-point defeat against the Zags, they needed this one. And, by the way, BYU still has not lost back-to-back regular season games in three seasons under Pope.
“It was really big for us,” said guard Alex Barcello, who finished with 18 points, including three 3-pointers, to go along with seven rebounds and three assists against the Dons.
“It could have ended up in a whole lot worse of a situation. I’m extremely happy.”
With the win, BYU (15-4, 3-1) avoided being swept on this road trip and earned an all-important Quad 1 victory. It also handed USF (15-3, 2-1) its first home loss of the season, after 11 victories, and its first West Coast Conference setback.
But it was never easy. In fact, the outcome remained in doubt right up until the final seconds.
After rallying from the 10-point deficit, Te’Jon Lucas’ free throws gave the Cougars a 66-65 advantage with 1:31 left — their first lead since the 2:58 mark of the first half.
Then Caleb Lohner took a pass from Barcello and scored a bucket with 56 seconds remaining to propel the Cougars to a 68-65 edge.
After a BYU stop, Barcello missed a jumper but Lohner glided to the ball and pulled it down to keep the possession alive with 16 seconds on the clock.
Lohner played only four minutes in the first half due to foul trouble but he finished with eight points and five rebounds.
“Caleb didn’t have much impact in the first half but he sure had an impact in the last 10 minutes of the second half,” Pope said. “In the second half, he just immersed himself in the guts of the game, the fun stuff of the game.
“The offensive rebound he had on our end was massive. It was a free-for-all, hustle rebound. It was five spots out of his area and he was just like, ‘I’m getting this board.’ That’s a separator for him. It makes him different from anybody else.”
Said Barcello: “Caleb’s got an eye for the ball. Wherever it’s coming off the rim, if I was the other team, I’d be scared to play against him. He’s just one of those guys.
“He told me before one of the games, ‘I want to be (former Duke star) Christian Laettner out there for you.’ Christian Laettner, everybody hated him. But he was such a good player and so physical. Caleb has that body. He has that sense of urgency to him. We saw how he was just killing it on the offensive end this week but, man, he can just rebound the heck out of the ball. That’s what we need him to do moving forward.”
The Dons then fouled Lucas, who buried a pair of free throws with 12.4 seconds remaining to put the Cougars up 70-67.
During the timeout before USF’s next possession, BYU decided not to foul, but Lucas was whistled for a foul on Don sharpshooter Jamaree Bouyea, who ended up with a team-high 19 points, sending him to the free throw line.
“We weren’t actually trying to foul. The way the refs were calling the game, I didn’t think Te’Jon fouled,” Barcello said.
“That’s just the way they were calling the game. Our plan was to get a stop. But they called it.”
Added Pope: “I actually didn’t love the foul. It made me a little nervous. Te’Jon is way smarter than I am.”
Bouyea sank both shots, then USF fouled Barcello, who hit one of two free throws with 6.9 seconds remaining.
That gave the Dons one last chance to potentially win the game with a 3, or send it into overtime with a 2.
Bouyea took an off-balanced, long 3 that bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
“He’s actually better at those shots than straight catch-and-shoot. I thought Te’Jon did a great job staying down. It was super deep but that’s a ball that can go in,” Pope said.
“It just teaches you about this game, man. If that ball goes in, the truth is, we all feel so wildly different. It hit there and then it softly bounced up against the backboard. It didn’t look like there was any chance it had the trajectory to go in, but you just never know.”
Said Barcello of Bouyea’s final heave: “I think it was going through everyone’s mind — it looked like it was going in. It could have gone in, but thankfully it didn’t. We’re going to take that as a win.”
Lucas scored 12 points to go along with five assists, and he went 6 of 6 from the free throw line. Four of those came in the final two minutes.
Fousseyni Traore had nine points and nine rebounds, while Gideon George added six points and seven rebounds. Atiki Ally Atiki gave the Cougars 10 solid minutes while taking on USF big man Yauhen Massalski.
“How about Atiki Ally Atiki, just being up for the fight?” Pope said. “He’s a freshman big and there’s no part of him that doesn’t want to engage in the fight. He doesn’t have fear. He just wants to go compete.”
Talk about adversity — in the first half, USF made 13 of 15 at the free throw line while BYU had zero free throw attempts. In fact, the Cougars didn’t get their first free throw until the 12:41 mark of the second half.
While USF made 24 of 28 for the game, in the second half, BYU hit 14 of 18 free throws, which played a factor in the win.
In the end, somehow everything came together for the Cougars.
“We were asking the same question,” Pope said of the free throw disparity. “Sometimes the game is that way. Sometimes when the game turns out the way it did, you want to have as much adversity as you can because that locker room after this game and the feel in our huddle the last five minutes, you don’t get that unless you face all kinds of adversity.
“We were facing a great team, a team that believes they’re going to win, a veteran team, a free throw disparity, and we’re playing the two best teams in this league back-to-back, on the road, with a flight. There’s nobody else in the league that will do that all season. We’re the only one scheduled that way. You think about all that adversity, and it’s pretty freakin’ awesome.”