STOCKTON, Calif. — Coming off a heartbreaking one-point loss at Santa Clara Thursday night, BYU was facing a must-win situation Saturday.
Instead of bouncing back, like the Cougars have done so many times under coach Mark Pope, they suffered a stunning fate.
This time, lowly Pacific punked BYU. As bad as Thursday’s result was, this was much, much worse.
That’s right, the same Pacific team that entered the night ranked No. 303 in the NCAA’s NET rankings — the Cougars were No. 28 — and was without its second-leading scorer, Luke Avdalovic, knocked off BYU.
The Tigers came out aggressive and with a sense of urgency against the Cougars. They took a lead at halftime, extended that advantage to as many as 13 in the second half, and finished down the stretch, earning a 76-73 victory over the Cougars at the Spanos Center.
It was the Tigers’ first West Coast Conference win of the season and it snapped their seven-game losing streak. Pacific hadn’t won a game since beating UC Santa Barbara in overtime way back on Dec. 14.
And with that, the Cougars suffered a disastrous Bay Area sweep.
It marked the first time that BYU (17-6, 5-3) has lost back-to-back regular-season games in three seasons under Pope.
No doubt, that streak was bound to end at some point. But nobody could have predicted it would happen against this Pacific team.
Afterwards, Pope took responsibility for the defeat.
“Super disappointing. It all comes back to me. I did a really poor job of having our guys prepared and getting them in the right frame of mind,” he said. “It gives us a chance to go figure out who we’re going to be. It’s a real test for us. We’ll see how we answer it.”
The Tigers (6-13, 1-4) played confidently and never backed down to the Cougars.
Pacific got balanced scoring from several players — Nick Blake (20 points), Jeremiah Bailey (15), Alphonso Anderson (15), Khaleb Wilson-Rouse (9) and Jalen Brown (9). Brown drilled three 3-pointers, Bailey added two and as a team, they knocked down nine.
The Tigers also went to the free throw line 26 times and hit 19.
“We’ve had two really subpar defensive games for ourselves the last two nights. I’ve done a poor job preparing our team for these games,” Pope said. “We’ve done a poor job having an edge to guard. We have to guard. It’s really important. We’ve gotten to the place that we’ve been at because we’ve guarded and rebounded at an elite level. We certainly didn’t do that on this trip.”
The Cougars played with a sense of urgency at times in the second half. They scored eight straight points midway through the half to take a 46-42 lead with 12:43 remaining, only to watch Pacific answer with eight consecutive points.
“Super disappointing. It all comes back to me. I did a really poor job of having our guys prepared and getting them in the right frame of mind.” — BYU coach Mark Pope
The Tigers stretched their lead to as many as 13 points with 2:15 remaining.
To BYU’s credit, it scrapped and clawed back into the game with a furious rally, thanks in part to a full-court press that flustered Pacific and forced it into turnovers.
“Our guys have a good sense of it. We’re playing a lineup we don’t traditionally play,” Pope said of the full-court press. “I’m always proud of our guys’ effort. Our guys tried. We just weren’t good enough tonight. Sometimes you’re not good enough. That part is my responsibility, to make us good enough.”
After Trevin Knell drilled a 3-pointer, Gideon George stole the inbounds pass and scored, then, seconds later, Te’Jon Lucas duplicated the feat to cut the deficit to 69-63.
Pacific’s Pierre Cockrell missed a pair of free throws and on the subsequent possession, Fousseyni Traore scored on a put-back to make it 69-64.
With 55.6 seconds left on the clock, Alex Barcello, who finished with a team-high 19 points, buried a 3-pointer and suddenly the Cougars trailed by just two points, 72-70. In a little over 1:20 of game time during that stretch, BYU outscored Pacific 14-2.
The Cougars had a chance to tie the game or take the lead when Barcello forced a Tiger turnover. But seconds later, Barcello was tied up by Pacific. He could not call timeout because the Cougars had none left.
Pope said he “mishandled” the timeouts in the game by using them up too soon.
Pacific made 4 of 4 free throws over the final 12 seconds. Barcello missed a jumper with six seconds remaining, and he nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make the final score 76-73.
There were some strange moments Saturday. For example, the shot clock buzzer repeatedly sounded inadvertently. Finally, with 9:14 left in the game, the official stopped the game to look into the matter. After a long break, the shot clocks above each basket were turned off to resolve the problem.
But Pope made no excuses.
“That has no impact on the game,” he said of the shot clock mishaps and the delays. “At the end of the day, it’s never the refs, it’s never the shot clock malfunctions. Those are just on the list of challenges. The question is, can you rise to the level of the challenge and we have not done that the last two nights.”
There was a bright spot Saturday for BYU. Freshman Atiki Ally Atiki scored a career-high eight points in 12 minutes of play, going 4 of 4 from the field and grabbing three rebounds.
“Atiki was terrific. He’s getting better every day,” Pope said. “And we need him to. It’s really important. He’s got to get better for us.”
Pope knows his entire team needs to get better — and soon.
The Cougars host San Francisco and No. 2 Gonzaga next week.