SANTA CLARA — No matter how this season turns out, BYU will likely look back at what happened Thursday night at the Leavey Center and remember how this was one that got away.
The Cougars led Santa Clara 74-70 — and had the ball — with under a minute remaining and appeared to be in control of the game.
But the Broncos outscored BYU 7-2 over the final 42 seconds after a lot of things went wrong for the Cougars.
Santa Clara’s star guard Jalen Williams, who poured in a game-high 26 points, scored a pair of coast-to-coast layups, one with 8.8 seconds left, and another one just before the final buzzer, as the Broncos edged BYU 77-76.
And when it was over, Santa Clara fans stormed the court as the Cougars trudged to their locker room.
“We didn’t manage the defensive end in the last two possessions very well, giving their best player layups in back-to-back possessions,” said coach Mark Pope. “He’s a terrific player. They got us.”
Yes, this loss will sting for a while, especially considering what could have been.
Going into the weekend, BYU was looking to go 6-1 in the West Coast Conference for the first time ever. And it was on the cusp of jumping back into the Associated Press Top 25 after sitting one spot outside the poll last Monday.
So much for that.
Even more maddening for BYU? The Cougars outshot Santa Clara from the field (49%-41%), the 3-point line (36%-32%) and the free throw line (75%-60%) and won the rebounding battle 40-31.
But the end saw the Cougars (17-5, 5-2) leaving the Leavey Center with a painful defeat.
Once again, turnovers hurt BYU. The Cougars had 18 of them, which gave the Broncos extra possessions.
Santa Clara (13-7, 3-2) capitalized on its size advantage and at one point in the game, it dominated in the paint — although BYU did a better job of scoring inside in the second half. The Broncos ended up outscoring the Cougars inside 44-40.
“Most concerning is just guarding in the paint. It’s tough. We’re a little bit small right now. We feel small. We just have to figure out better ways to do it. We’ve got to do a better job at the point of attack,” Pope said. “We did a miserable job, I felt, of navigating — oddly, because it’s not like us — we kept letting guys (get inside). We’re really good at shooting the gap and getting under to protect the middle. It was super weird and disorienting for us. It’s not how we are. We’ll shore that up and get better.”
It was a back-and-forth affair for 40 minutes. There were 13 ties and 22 lead changes. The game was tied for 8:25 while BYU led for 18:21 minutes, compared to 13:14 for Santa Clara. Neither team led by more than four points.
At halftime, the Cougars had a 39-37 advantage. But there was plenty to clean up going into the final 20 minutes.
“In the first half, we were unsuccessful guarding in transition and we were unsuccessful protecting the glass — two things that are super important to us,” Pope said. “In the second half, we did better on the glass for sure. We just can’t give these guys baskets at the rim. It was super disappointing. Our feet weren’t great, our rim-protection wasn’t great. They were really good. That’s a problem. We’ll get better. We’ve just got to get better.”
It was kind of fitting that the Broncos scored on layups to win the game because BYU had trouble stopping Santa Clara in the paint all night long.
The Cougars’ senior guards, Alex Barcello and Te’Jon Lucas, came up with a lot of big plays. Barcello scored 20 points, including four 3-pointers, while Lucas finished with 17 points on 8 of 10 shooting from the field.
Forward Fousseyni Traore recorded another double-double with 10 points and 15 rebounds. Gideon George had 13 points and six boards.
But none of that was enough to put BYU over the top.
“We didn’t manage the defensive end in the last two possessions very well, giving their best player layups in back-to-back possessions.” — BYU coach Mark Pope
Let’s look at the final minute of play — right after a layup by Lucas put the Cougars ahead 74-70 with 1:08 remaining.
Santa Clara missed its next shot. Traore picked up the rebound and was fouled. Both teams called a timeout before Lucas tried to throw a deep pass to George, but it was out of his reach and went out of bounds.
Taking advantage of the miscue, Santa Clara’s PJ Pipes drilled a 3-pointer with 42.5 seconds left to cut the deficit to 74-73.
With 19 seconds on the clock, Traore scored on a putback to give the Cougars a 76-73 lead.
Williams responded by scoring on a driving layup to make it 76-75 with 8.8 seconds left.
On the inbounds pass, Barcello almost lost the ball before Spencer Johnson grabbed it and was knocked out of bounds. After the officials reviewed the play for several minutes, they called a foul and sent Johnson to the free throw line for a one-and-one.
Johnson missed the free throw and although BYU rebounded the ball, Johnson was whistled for a lane violation, giving the Broncos possession with six seconds on the clock.
That set up Williams’ last-second heroics. He dribbled the length of the court and scored just before the final horn sounded.
Despite the loss, Pope was pleased with his players’ effort.
“They’re so tough. I was proud of the whole team. The whole team fought. This is life on the road. It’s hard,” he said. “I have no issue with the guys’ competitive fire. I need to be a better coach so we can function a little bit better to win this game.”
BYU visits Pacific Saturday.
TIP-INS: Former BYU football star Fred Warner, now a star with the San Francisco 49ers, attended Thursday’s game ... Only 25% capacity allowed for fans Thursday at the Leavey Center … Santa Clara’s Josip Vrankic finished with 14 points … BYU starters Caleb Lohner and Trevin Knell combined to go 1 of 9 from the field and scored three points … Atiki Ally Atiki grabbed four rebounds and scored four points in 11 minutes of play.