It was a night of celebrations Saturday at the Marriott Center and, at times along the way, BYU fans were partying like it was 1981.
At halftime, the school paid tribute to the revered 1981 Cougar basketball team that advanced to the Elite Eight of NCAA Tournament — a feat that’s never been matched at BYU — and 14,857 Cougar faithful showed up to cheer for them, as well as the current BYU team.
The 2021-22 Cougars made the ’81 squad proud with an entertaining 78-65 victory over Portland.
A lot has changed in 41 years — BYU has gone from the Western Athletic Conference to the West Coast Conference, and the game is much different, too — but there were magical moments Saturday when the feeling in the Marriott Center was reminiscent of past glories.
Members of the ’81 team, and the coaching staff, attended the pregame shootaround, and coach Mark Pope broke his sacrosanct pregame protocol to speak to them for a couple of minutes as they dined.
Pope felt humbled.
“These guys have done something that’s never been done here. To think that they’re willing to walk in this gym and watch us fight and support us is incredible,” Pope said.
“We talk about this all of the time. We get to walk in with 15,000, 18,000 in this building because those guys built this incredible fan base. When they were playing, it was 23,000 every single night. They built this generational love for this university.”
That generational love was on full display in a variety of ways Saturday.
After a 3-pointer late in the first half, BYU’s Seneca Knight slapped the hand of a young fan on the front row.
“I shot it and turned around and then the kid put his hand out,” Knight said. “It was great to celebrate with him.”
While many of the players on that 1981 team are in their 60s, one of them, Greg Kite, took time after the game to talk to freshman big man Atiki Ally Atiki in the locker room and share his knowledge.
“It’s fun having those guys around,” Pope said.
Saturday also marked freshman Fousseyni Traore’s birthday. Some old-timers in the crowd compare his remarkable rebounding ability to Steve Trumbo from the ’81 team.
Traore recorded another double-double Saturday with 13 points and 10 rebounds. He was also 6 of 6 from the field and had four assists.
“What can I say about this Fouss? Six-for-six, on his birthday?” Knight said. “That’s crazy.”
The Cougars fell behind by seven early but, as they are wont to do, finished the first half strong.
Knight, who scored 14 points, including 4 of 9 from 3-point range, picked up a couple of early fouls but drilled back-to-back 3s in the final minute of the half to give BYU (17-4, 5-1) a 39-34 halftime lead.
And the Cougars never looked back.
“They all came to me and told me to keep shooting,” Knight said of his teammates. “To be able to give them that spark and just knowing that they believe in me and knowing I was able to fulfill what they were asking me to do, it felt great.”
The Cougars took control in the second half and led by as many as 20.
Guard Te’Jon Lucas turned in an outstanding performance, scoring a game-high 16 points and dishing out seven assists.
Forward Caleb Lohner scored BYU’s first seven points of the game and finished with 13 points and five rebounds.
On a night when its star, Alex Barcello — this team’s equivalent of Danny Ainge — had a modest nine points, the rest of the Cougars picked up the scoring slack.
“We’re growing. Te’Jon was unbelievable in the first half. Sen was unbelievable in the first half,” Pope said. “How about these guys finishing the half? This team has some magic. It has nothing to do with coaching, either. They’re smart, high-IQ, feel the importance of the moment. We finished the last minute of the half — every game it’s been really special and they did it again.
“Everybody saw Atiki take another step tonight. We’re seeing Fouss grow every single night,” Pope added. “And Caleb Lohner took a step forward tonight. And Seneca Knight took a real step forward tonight. That’s super important for our team to reach our ceiling.”
The Pilots (10-9, 1-3) entered the night ranked No. 1 nationally in free-throw percentage, shooting 81.6%. But Saturday, they made just 9 of 18 from the charity stripe.
Pope, of course, credited the student section, the ROC, for its free-throw defense.
“That’s the student section, baby! That’s the magic of playing in this building. They’ve been great for us all year,” he said. “They take pride in it. Where is there a basketball environment with a student section like that? I don’t think there is one. They had a huge impact on the game.”
All in all, it was a night that carried on the legacy of that 1981 team.
“We walk into this building and there’s 15,000 people, and the greatest, most accomplished team ever to compete for BYU have put aside their lives for a couple of hours to come support these guys and watch these guys,” Pope said.
“That’s super humbling. … My last comment to them was, ‘We’ve got to take you guys off the board as the most accomplished team.’ We’ve got to find a way to do it somehow. It’s really special.”
BYU visits Santa Clara next Thursday.