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How Spencer Johnson’s return helped key BYU’s WCC-opening win at Pacific

Sporting a brace on his left knee, Johnson came off the bench and scored 15 points, including three 3-pointers, to help lead BYU to a 69-49 victory over the Tigers

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BYU’s Spencer Johnson shoots during a game against Ottawa at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Wednesday, November 2, 2022.

BYU’s Spencer Johnson shoots during a game against Ottawa at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Wednesday, November 2, 2022. Johnson returned to the lineiup Thursday against Pacific after missing five weeks because of injury and scored 15 points.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

For the past five weeks, BYU has been trying to manage without the on-floor leadership, steadiness and consistency from guard Spencer Johnson, who suffered an injury on Nov. 24 during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in The Bahamas.

During that time, the Cougars experienced both lows and highs — losses to South Dakota and Utah Valley and a five-game winning streak entering Thursday night’s West Coast Conference opener at Pacific.

Johnson, who averaged 11 points per game before his injury, returned to action at the Spanos Center, and he simply picked up right where he left off.

Sporting a brace on his left knee, Johnson came off the bench and scored 15 points, including three 3-pointers, to help lead BYU to a 69-49 victory over the Tigers.

“Spence has been around the block. He’s so smart. He’s a veteran guy. He knows what it takes to win,” forward Gideon George told BYU Radio.

“Getting Spencer back and seeing him play this way, he’s been playing this way all year round. Getting Spencer back is a huge relief for us on the defensive and offensive end.”

Going into the game, coach Mark Pope was asked by reporters how difficult it might be to work Johnson back into the rotation after an extended absence. 

“By all accounts, it should be. We’ve won five in a row. We’re getting better and growing and the guys have found a comfort zone with the rotation,” he said after Thursday’s win.

“But my answer to the media was, I don’t think it’s going to be hard because at some point in the game, I was going to check Spencer into the game like I’ve done for three years now. Then I’m probably never going to check him out because he comes in and makes the right play. I thought he was absolutely terrific tonight.”

Meanwhile, Jaxson Robinson scored a career-high 17 points, hitting 4 of 10 from 3-point range, and grabbed six rebounds. 

“Jaxson continues to find ways to impact the game,” Pope said. “He still has room to grow. We worry about a lot less stuff when he’s on the floor. He’s making a huge impact there. It’s great to see him have some impact on the glass and make some shots tonight.”

Added George: “I’m happy for Jax. Every night, a guy has to step up and Jaxson did tonight. I’m super proud of him. We all believe in Jaxson. We know what he brings to the table. I’m glad he came out here and was aggressive and he got his points. I’m happy for him.”

As a team, the Cougars hit 11 of 25 from 3-point range.

BYU’s game plan revolved around slowing down Pacific’s 3-point shooting, and the Cougars accomplished that, limiting the Tigers to 6 of 23 from 3-point territory. 

“They were a top-25 3-point shooting team in the country coming into this game,” Pope said. “I’m super proud of the guys.”

While BYU (11-5, 1-0) extended its winning streak to six games, it ended the Tigers’ three-game winning streak. 

On top of that, the handful of Cougars, like Johnson and George, who were on the team last season remembered the bitter loss Pacific handed BYU. 

“I told the (new) guys this is like a revenge mission,” George said. “We’re going to come out and punch them in the mouth and take the fight to them. I’m so proud of the guys for doing that.”

At the outset, however, the Tigers punched first, taking an early 8-1 lead. 

But the Cougars responded with a 22-5 run to take control of the game. They led by as many as 12 in the first half, with Johnson scoring 10 first-half points.

In the second half, BYU led by as many as 26 points. Guard Dallin Hall drilled a pair of big 3-pointers early in the final 20 minutes that put even more distance between the Cougars and Pacific. 

BYU outrebounded the Tigers 40-25 and limited them to 32% shooting from the field. 

The Cougars did struggle holding on to the basketball, however, as they had 19 turnovers. But on this night, BYU dominated anyway. 

Bottom line, the Cougars are thrilled to have Johnson back on the floor as WCC play begins. 

“Of all his really, really impressive numbers, the one I was most excited about was his zero turnovers,” Pope said. “It’s been great to have him back. We’ve missed him.”

BYU hosts Portland Saturday.