BYU offered a glimpse of what it could be in 2022-23 in the season-opener against Idaho State.
And it wasn’t pretty, as the Cougars averted one of their worst home losses in recent memory.
On a rare Monday night home game, before a crowd of 13,972, BYU rallied late and edged the Bengals, 60-56.
The box score was ugly. But to the Cougars, all that mattered was earning the win.
“I’m super happy. It wasn’t easy out there,” said forward Fousseyni Traore, who finished with a double-double — 15 points and 11 rebounds. “It was crazy. But, like coach always says, ‘You just have to find a way to win.’ I think that’s what we did.”
The Cougars hit only 3 of 16 3-pointers, but they made them down the stretch, with the outcome hanging in the balance.
Guard Spencer Johnson, in his first official start at BYU, knocked down a 3-pointer with 11.2 seconds remaining to give the Cougars its first lead, 58-56, since early in the second half.
“He made a big-time shot. The Spencer Johnson story is super special,” said coach Mark Pope. “It’s in my heart for him right now … He’s earned that right. He’s been working for that moment for a long time. I’m super happy for him.”
Johnson ended up with 11 points and six rebounds.
“We needed it,” Traore said of Johnson’s heroics. “He was willing to take it and make us win.”
With 2:37 left, Gideon George (10 points, eight rebounds) buried a 3 to cut the deficit to 53-51.
Rudi Williams hit a 3-pointer 40 seconds into the game. Then BYU missed its next 13 3-point attempts.
The Cougars trailed by six points, 53-47, with less than three minutes remaining. But George’s 3, followed by a putback by Traore with 59 seconds left, followed by two clutch free throws by Traore with 25.6 seconds remaining, set up Johnson’s game-winner.
Johnson also drilled a pair of free throws with 1.2 seconds on the clock to close out the game.
While the result was positive, most of the game itself revealed how much BYU needs to work on moving forward.
“We struggled offensively the whole night,” Pope said. “Most of that’s on me.”
The Cougars had 23 turnovers and shot 37% from the field.
“I believe this team’s ceiling is really, really high. We have a long way to go to get there. The opportunity to actually win a game where there’s so many lessons for us to cull from this game,” Pope said. “In some ways, it really exposed some of the things we can dial into and make a fix.
“It maybe made some believers out of our guys about how, ‘Wow, we really do need to fix A, B and C.’ The fact that we get to do that with a win, where you wake up in the morning and you feel kind of good about it and approach it positively rather than approach it like you’re bearing the weight of the world is a gift. We’re super grateful for that.”
Pope credited Idaho State’s defense for causing some of the issues for BYU. He also attributed the struggles to it being the first game of the season.
“We are better than we played tonight. That’s not taking any credit away from Idaho State,” Pope said. “We just were a little stagnant that way. It was the first game, first game in front of a crowd, first game with all of these guys, it was the first of so many things. … Just a lot of new.”
Because of school policy, BYU doesn’t practice or play on Sundays. And this game fell on a Monday.
“It was super weird. I don’t know if it’s ever happened in the history of college basketball where before your season-opener you’re off. We were,” Pope said. “That’s weird, too. We’re better than we showed tonight. Idaho State has a lot of credit to them for making us not as good as we are tonight. We’ve got a lot of growing to do.”
Idaho State, members of the Big Sky Conference, won just seven games last season and added, like BYU, a bunch of new players this season.
One of those was former Cougar Kolby Lee, who went 0 of 4 from the field and grabbed five rebounds in 19 minutes of play.
“Kolby’s really good and he’s going to be a foundation of this team. It wasn’t a great night for him. A lot of credit for that goes to Fouss and Atiki (Ally Atiki) and the other guys. Kolby is one of the best human beings you’ll ever meet in your life. His wife is equally incredible,” Pope said. “They’re a great couple. He’ll have a really special year. He almost walked out of here with a win in the first game of the season, which would have been really special to him.
“I hope Kolby felt it when he was announced. The ROC gave him a big standing ovation. He was such a huge, huge part of what we did here when we first got here. I love him. I think he’s a really special person and I think he’s going to have a great career. Probably not a perfect night but he’ll have a great year this year.”
As for his team, Pope knows this is going to be a work-in-progress.
“We’re kind of this high-ceiling, low-floor right now. We were dwelling on the floor a little bit today in terms of our ball movement,” he said. “The more freedom that you give, the more chance there is that you get stuck a little bit. You’re not telling guys exactly what to do, exactly how to do it and exactly when to do it. It’s going to be a learning process for us. But we’re committed to it.”
BYU visits No. 19 San Diego State on Friday.