As BYU has learned over the years, a win over Saint Mary’s is never easy. 

The Cougars defeated the Gaels 52-43 Saturday night at the Marriott Center in a defensive-oriented, grind-it-out affair. 

“Early on in our tenure in the WCC, we were like, ‘We’re not going to let Saint Mary’s play this way,’” said coach Mark Pope. “We’re going to somehow get tempo and pace of the game. I’m not smart enough to figure out how to do that. We’ve just got to try to beat them at the game that they want to play — and these guys did it.”

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Now the Cougars are preparing to visit No. 4 Gonzaga Thursday (9 p.m., MST, ESPN2). 

It’s a much different test.

For example, BYU and Saint Mary’s combined to score 95 points Saturday. That same night, the Zags, by themselves, scored 117 points against Pepperdine.

“It’s like polar opposites, right? The score of this game (against Saint Mary’s) was 9-7 with eight minutes left in the first half. I think the last time we went to Gonzaga, it was like 24-2 in the first two minutes of the game,” Pope said.

“We understand the challenge that is. We’re going up there to play probably still the best team in college basketball or top-3 team. We’re playing in their building, where they’re really good. They’re amazingly fresh because they’ve had some time. It’s a big-time challenge.”

Fresh off downing the Gaels (12-4, 0-1), the Cougars (14-3, 2-0) are looking forward to playing at The Kennel. 

“This is what Alex and I came back for,  these kinds of games — Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga,” said guard Te’Jon Lucas, who scored a team-high 10 points against the Gaels. “Our goal is to go in there and snag one from them. We’re super excited. It’s going to be another fight for 40 minutes. We’ve got to prepare this week, get on the road and bring that fight on the road.”

Cougars on the air


BYU (14-3, 2-0)


at No. 2 Gonzaga (12-2,  1-0) 


Thursday, 9 p.m. MST


McCarthey Athletic Center


TV: ESPN2


Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM


Against Saint Mary’s, BYU relied on its athleticism, length and depth from players like Atiki Ally Atiki, who blocked three shots; Seneca Knight, who had eight points and four rebounds; and Gideon George, had two points and two boards. 

“Seneca is such an important piece of our team,” Pope said. “We’ve been talking about this for weeks. I told him, ‘Sen, the Saint Mary’s game is coming up and that’s when you’re going to give us what we don’t have.’ You saw it in the first half, him getting downhill, taking the physicality of the game and finishing. Gideon made some huge plays. He had one of the most extraordinary rebounds I’ve ever seen in front of our bench. Those guys helped us a lot.”

Also helping the Cougars was the crowd of 17,544 that made for a magical environment at the Marriott Center. 

“It’s amazing playing in front of that crowd is extra energy out there. We can’t thank Cougar Nation enough, the ROC and fans that traveled here from out-of-state, in-state,” Lucas said.

“Playing in something like that, you don’t get that everywhere. I don’t think there’s nowhere in the country right now getting 17,000-plus fans in their conference games. We’re blessed to have those fans and we can’t thank them enough for supporting us.”

Pope also loves the boost received from the fans.

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“I’m forcing myself now the last few games to find a moment in the game to appreciate what’s happening in this building — what these guys and Cougar Nation are making happen in this building,” he said.

“It goes so deep for me. I’m so happy for Saint Mary’s, that those kids are working really hard, too, and the fact that they get to come into this building and experience the highest, most perfect college basketball atmosphere. Every young person dreams of that. What’s happening in this building is a massive gift to us.”

On Thursday, the Cougars are expected to play in front of another energized crowd. But this time, of course, that crowd will be cheering against them as they collide with the perennial West Coast Conference champs. 

It’s just another challenge for this BYU team to embrace.

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