After a strong finish to his freshman season, and then being named to the preseason All-West Coast Conference Team last fall, a lot of expectations were heaped on BYU forward Caleb Lohner before the 2021-22 campaign tipped off.
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Lohner, who led the Cougars in rebounding last year, has been a force on the boards all season long. But his overall offensive numbers have fallen short of what many expected. For example, he made only 2 of his first 24 3-point attempts of the season going into last week’s games. Some wondered if he was struggling through a sophomore slump.
Then last Thursday in a loss to now-No. 1 Gonzaga, with the crowd jeering him mercilessly, he scored 17 points, on 7 of 10 shooting, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range, and grabbed five rebounds.
Two nights later, after playing only four minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, Lohner finished the game with a flourish while helping the Cougars rally from a 10-point second-half deficit, which included scoring with 56 seconds remaining to give the Cougars a 68-65 lead.
With 16 seconds left, Lohner raced across the court to grab a game-saving offensive rebound to help lock down a 71-69 victory. He finished with eight points and five rebounds.
“Caleb’s such a talented player. One of his talents is his motor,” said coach Mark Pope. “With all that he did, the thing everyone wants to talk about is the offensive rebound he got that seals the game. That’s winning basketball.”
That rebound was the biggest of the season for the Cougars.
“He’s popping at the 3-point line, he sees the ball go up, he changes direction right away and runs straight from the top of the key, full-speed, with all his force and power that he’s got, then he’s able to change direction and spring off the ground and pursue the ball with two hands and come up with it before it goes out of bounds,” Pope said, describing what he saw on that play.
Pope said that he likes Lohner’s “motor,” adding that there are players in the NBA making tens of millions of dollars because of their motor.
“It’s a talent. I don’t know if there’s anything more valuable than motor. And he’s got it oozing out of him.” — BYU coach Mark Pope on Caleb Lohner’s hustle
“It’s a talent,” Pope said. “I don’t know if there’s anything more valuable than motor. And he’s got it oozing out of him. … Motor and consistency are super important. Obviously, he’s an incredible athlete, he’s got great physicality and a real nose for the ball. He’s special in a lot of ways.”
While that rebound at War Memorial Gym was a crucial play by Lohner, guard Te’Jon Lucas wasn’t surprised by how it all unfolded.
“It’s what Caleb has been doing all year, honestly. He’s been a great offensive rebounder — that’s what makes us one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. He has a knack for the ball. When he got that rebound, all I could think about was sprinting over there so we could get it and waste more time,” he said. “I saw Caleb chase it down and I knew that he was going to come up with it.
“There was no way he wasn’t coming up with that one, unless the guy fouled him. It shows you how Caleb will do anything for this team. He made a key bucket at the end of the game and getting that rebound to basically seal the game. That was huge. Caleb’s doing anything he can out there to make plays. That’s all we ask for guys to do.”
Does last weekend’s performances signal a turning point for Lohner?
“It was really good for him. He’s made such a huge contribution to this team from the get-go,” Pope said. “He affects the game in so many different ways. I know he felt good about making about some shots and he was so huge down the stretch at San Francisco. He was unbelievable.”
Certainly, the loss of Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter for the season has forced Lohner to play in a different way than was projected in terms of having to play different positions.
“He’s trying to attack this game from the four and he spent in the summer at the three and now he spends some time at the five. It’s multiple positions for a lot of decision-making,” Pope said. “I like his decisiveness right now. Even when it’s the wrong decision, I’m like, ‘Go make a decision. We’ll live with it. Be decisive.’ I thought he was pretty decisive last weekend.”
After the USF game, guard Alex Barcello talked about how much he loves playing with Lohner.
“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 said. “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 Laettner comparison didn’t sit well with Pope, a former Kentucky player. The Wildcat program has suffered plenty at the hands of the former Duke star.
“Can we pick somebody else than the guy that put a dagger in our heart?” Pope asked.
That aside, Pope loves coaching Lohner.
“It’s such a joy. This is a game of frustration. But Caleb is never going to show you a face. Whether things go great or bad, he’s running off the floor (pumping) up his guys. He’s a great, great leader that way,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m so convinced that his future in this game is so huge because he’s able to absorb a lot of frustration and keep going.
“Most people, almost everybody, would turn back or change or vent their frustration or give up. That’s not in Caleb’s nature. He has these breakthroughs and he’s going to keep having them because he’s relentless.”