LOS ANGELES — Considering all that the BYU basketball program had experienced the last two weeks, the way that it snapped its nightmarish four-game losing streak was fitting.
Nothing has come easily for the Cougars lately.
BYU was facing an opponent just as desperate for a win, as Loyola Marymount had lost five consecutive games.
For the Cougars, their NCAA Tournament hopes hung precariously in the balance all night Thursday at Gersten Pavilion.
BYU fell behind by as many as 17 points in the second half, then roared back to take the lead.
Just when it appeared that the Cougars might have the game all but sewn up in the final moments, the Lions forced overtime.
Then, in OT, with the game tied, it came down to BYU’s Seneca Knight standing on the free throw line for a pressure-packed attempt with one second remaining in the extra period.
Knight knocked down the first free throw, which turned out to be the difference in the Cougars’ dramatic 83-82 overtime win.
“It was a dogfight out there. (LMU is) very well-coached and they played hard,” said BYU guard Te’Jon Lucas, who scored 17 points, dished out a season-high nine assists, and played a key role in the Cougars’ second-half comeback.
“They were in a losing streak like us and we’re both fighting for our lives. They gave us their best shot. Ultimately, we came out with the win.”
Coach Mark Pope was happy for Knight, who had recently endured a tragic situation in his life.
“I told the guys in the locker room afterwards, Sen had a really awful personal, close family friend tragedy yesterday right before we jumped on the plane,” Pope said.
“He was obviously distraught. This game is a beautiful thing. The karma of this game is unreal. There’s no words for it. The fact that he got to go represent the people that he loves and represented his team with a free throw (with one second remaining) to win was pretty awesome.”
And with that, BYU won its first game since Jan. 22 when it beat Portland at the Marriott Center. It marked its first road win since a 71-69 decision at San Francisco on Jan. 15.
The Cougars (18-8, 6-5) avoided their first five-game losing streak since the end of the 2004-05 season — and kept their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
They also avoided having a losing record overall in conference play.
Pope was relieved to win a game, of course, but he was also thrilled to see the way his team responded to adversity — adversity that stretched back 14 days, when the Cougars lost in the last second at Santa Clara.
“It’s hard to win, especially where we’ve been the last two weeks. It’s so hard. We had a bunch of guys fighting tonight,” he said.
“You go two weeks like we’ve had and you’re down 17 in the second half, it’s just a test of what you are as a living organism as a team. It’s the ultimate test. These guys were able to make that work tonight. That’s super special, man. As a coach, to get to witness that is really special. How can you not be proud of these guys. It’s what you care about most. We care about winning. But when you get to witness toughness, grit and character like this, it’s even better.”
LMU (9-13, 2-8) entered the night having scored 60, 60, 65, 55 and 51 points, respectively, in its previous five games, and the Lions ranked No. 198 nationally in 3-pointers per game.
But LMU belied those numbers Thursday, particularly in the first half.
The Lions shot 70% from 3-point range (7 of 10) and 70% (19 of 27) over the first 20 minutes. In fact, they closed out the first half on a 20-6 run over the final 6:06 to take a 12-point lead (45-33) into the locker room at halftime.
And if that weren’t bad enough for BYU, LMU scored five quick points to start the second half, and suddenly it led by 17 points, 50-33.
“We walked in the locker room at halftime and they’re shooting 70% from the 3-point line and 70% from the field. They put 45 on us,” Pope said. “We had tried a new defensive scheme and we just couldn’t implement it at game-speed in this environment.
“We were down 12 at halftime and then two minutes in (the second half), we’re down 17. These guys just refused to go away. Winning is great. But getting to witness these guys’ togetherness grow and character shows the best part of sports. That was this game.”
Down by 17, Lucas went to work and helped bring the Cougars back. BYU went on a 19-2 run over the next six minutes, with Lucas drilling three 3-pointers during that stretch.
“He gave us some life at the beginning of the second half. In the first half, he was as good as he’s been hitting the roll,” Pope said. “He managed that well all night. He had a terrific, terrific game.”
Lucas also helped freshman Fousseyni Traore to break out of his four-game slump. Traore made some big baskets all night and he finished with a team-high 19 points while collecting a game-high 12 rebounds.
Pope said that his team’s effort, its “100% fight” on the defensive end also sparked the turnaround.
“We got in transition early and got a few stops. We had guys respond. I thought our guys were as good as we could be at fighting through a whole possession to make a play for their team.
“Our guys just kept fighting until something opened up. Both on the offensive and defensive end, the change was dramatic.”
A Spencer Johnson 3-pointer with 11:29 remaining gave the Cougars their first lead since it was 5-0, less than one minute into the contest.
But the two teams traded baskets for most of the rest of the game.
A 3-pointer by Gideon George, who finished with 18 points and hit 4 of 7 3s, put BYU up 69-66 with 4:48 remaining.
Then Caleb Lohner’s offensive rebound led to a 3-pointer by Knight with 3:21 left to propel the Cougars to a 72-68 advantage.
But, of course, finishing off LMU couldn’t be that simple.
Lion forward Keli Leaupepe, and his trademark mullet, killed the Cougars again and again on his way to 26 points, seven rebounds and four steals.
His back-to-back buckets drew LMU to within 75-74 with 45.2 seconds remaining.
Alex Barcello made one of two free throws to lift BYU to a two-point lead. LMU’s Eli Scott scored with two seconds on the clock to tie the game, then Barcello’s halfcourt heave at the buzzer rimmed out.
And it was on to overtime.
Once again, it went back-and-forth in the extra period. Leaupepe tied the game at 82-all with 23 seconds left, and BYU had a chance to end the contest. Just before the buzzer sounded, Knight drew a foul.
LMU coach Stan Johnson argued that the clock had expired but the officials reviewed the play and sent Knight to the free throw line.
Knight calmly nailed the first, then strategically missed the second by throwing the ball hard off the backboard.
LMU grabbed the rebound and called timeout. After another review, the officials put .7 second on the clock.
From under their own basket, the Lions threw a high-arching pass that traveled the length of the court. Scott caught the ball on the opposite side of the court but was unable to get a shot off as the final buzzer sounded.
It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t always pretty. But it was a win.
“This means a lot. Winning in college basketball is never easy. Getting a good win is always great for us. Winning is hard. A lot of upsets happen,” Lucas said.
“This is a big win. Hopefully we can learn from this game, and the previous four games, and hopefully it can be the start of something great.”
BYU visits Pepperdine Saturday.