Could the upset of No. 21 Creighton be the turning point BYU desperately needed?
This is a Cougars team that played impressively at SDSU and against the Bluejays, but lost to South Dakota and Utah Valley.
LAS VEGAS — For stretches, most people didn’t recognize the BYU team that upset No. 21-ranked Creighton Saturday night.
Yes, there were times when the Cougars looked like their usual selves in the form of frustrating, mind-numbing turnovers and missed shots at Michelob ULTRA Arena.
This is a BYU team that played impressively at nationally ranked San Diego State and Saturday against the Bluejays.
But it’s also a team that lost to South Dakota at a neutral site and fell against Utah Valley by 15 points at home Wednesday. And it almost dropped the season-opener against Idaho State at home.
It’s a team that’s been snakebitten by injuries — starting guard Spencer Johnson has been out for a couple of weeks — and intense growing pains.
Can BYU’s stunning victory over Creighton change the complexion of the season and alter the Cougars’ trajectory?
“It means a lot,” freshman Richie Saunders, who scored 10 points and shined defensively against Creighton, said of the win. “It’s really easy to give in to outside sources and give into the negativity and let that totally overthrow the team.
“Coach has been really on us on not being on our phones and not focusing on social media. I think that made all the difference (Saturday). Because instead of a very tough loss on Wednesday and letting that totally ruin our season, we decided to continue to get better. I do believe this will be a springboard for the future.”
Guard Rudi Williams, who poured in a season-high 26 points off the bench Saturday, said the win is proof that BYU (6-5) is improving.
“It means that we’re heading in the right direction. We try our best to get better every day,” he said. “We’re trying not to worry about the past; we’re just trying to focus on the next day and getting better. It’s still early. Nobody is good in November and December. We’re preparing for March and being a really good team then.”
After last week’s disappointing loss to UVU, coach Mark Pope emphasized that he still believed that his group could become a good team by the end of the season.
Saturday’s performance was evidence that he might be right.
“In terms of our guys, their willingness to be humble enough to admit where we are right now, which is a team that’s not great right now but we believe that we can become a great team,” Pope said. “Very rarely do you have guys that are mature enough to look in the mirror accurately evaluate where we are right now and then have the fortitude to say,
“‘We’re going to get better.’ We’re new and we’re young, and all of those things. But these guys are special. They’re working really hard to try to grow into a really special team. We have a long way to go but it sure is fun to coach this group.”
It was BYU’s first win over a ranked team since throttling No. 12 Oregon 81-49 last season.
And this isn’t the first time BYU has earned a big, non-conference victory in Las Vegas.
This Cougar team really needed this victory Saturday.
Pope reshuffled his lineup again. He kept Dallin Hall in at point guard — and Hall scored the game-winning basket, a putback of his own miss with 11 second remaining — and inserted Noah Waterman into the starting lineup.
Waterman finished with five points and eight rebounds. Jaxson Robinson hit three 3-pointers and had 11 points. Fousseyni Traore added 11 points and 12 rebounds and Gideon George chipped in 11 points.
With Ryan Kalkbrenner, Creighton’s 7-foot-1 star, sidelined due to an illness, the Cougars capitalized on the glass, out-rebounding the Bluejays 50-29, including 16-4 on the offensive boards. BYU also scored 21 second-chance points.
How different was this BYU team Saturday compared to what Creighton coach Greg McDermott saw on film and prepared for this week?
“They made some shots in the first half. They had been struggling to shoot the basketball,” he said. “Their inside game was more of a factor because of the lineup we rolled out there.
“We had to do things to try to combat that and you give up something when you do that. They played with an edge. We had them down 19-11 and I thought we had a chance to create separation and then we went into a mode where we were just trading baskets.”
“It was a battle,” Saunders said. “From the very beginning, our goals were defending in transition and using the offensive and defensive boards to our advantage.”
The Cougars accomplished those goals to take down Creighton.
This week, BYU hosts Western Oregon on Wednesday and arch-rival Utah Saturday.
Those are opportunities for the Cougars to show that they really are improving, before West Coast Conference play tips off on Dec. 29 at Pacific.