To break losing streak, BYU needed clutch performances
The Cougars kept their NCAA Tournament hopes alive with win over LMU, thanks in large part to Te’Jon Lucas, Foussevni Traore, Gideon George and Seneca Knight
LOS ANGELES — Still dressed in their navy blue road uniforms, and wearing smiles, BYU’s players emerged from the visitors locker room at Gersten Pavilion late Thursday night.
Cougars on the air
BYU (18-8, 6-5)
at Pepperdine (7-19, 1-10)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MST
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
The players were instructed to lay down on the floor for a postgame stretching session in a narrow corridor of the building. Some were occupied with their thoughts, some exhaled in relief, some laughed, and, occasionally, some hollered with joy. It looked like a group of guys just decompressing.
Who could blame them after an arduous two-week stretch?
Minutes earlier, the Cougars had just survived an 83-82 overtime win over Loyola Marymount, ending a four-game losing streak.
Then coach Mark Pope strode out of the locker room. As he made his way back to the court for his postgame BYU Radio interview, Pope carefully stepped over and around his prone players, leaning down to high-five and compliment each and every one of them, even those who never entered the game, for their contributions.
Certainly, BYU’s victory, which kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, was a team effort.
But a handful of individual performances Thursday were particularly memorable.
Let’s start with senior guard Te’Jon Lucas, who had missed last Saturday’s loss to No. 2 Gonzaga due to a minor concussion and a sore shoulder, head and back.
Returning to the starting lineup, Lucas willed the Cougars back from a 17-point deficit early in the second half by knocking down three 3-pointers during a three-minute span as part of a 19-2 run that tied the game at 52. Lucas scored 11 of those 19 points and he finished with 17, as well as a season-high nine assists.
“I was just taking what the defense was giving me,” Lucas said. “I’m not a guy to force shots. I was happy to get on a roll and keep us from letting the game get too far away from us.”
Lucas was happy to be back on the court.
“I had to take a couple of days off. I was so disappointed that I wasn’t able to play against Gonzaga,” he said. “But the coaching staff and everybody supported the decision that was made. It was the right decision. It was the smartest decision we could do. I was able to sit out for a couple of days and I practiced a little bit Tuesday and I practiced (Wednesday) and it prepared me for (Thursday).”
Then there was freshman Fousseyni Traore, who had struggled offensively in his previous three games, making just 4 of 12 shots.
Against LMU, Traore gave the Cougars a much-needed presence inside, hitting 8 of 11 attempts, tying a career-high with 19 points, collecting 12 rebounds and blocking a career-high four shots.
“I thought he was terrific. He’s carrying a lot of pressure. It’s not fair for a freshman,” Pope said of Traore. “Think about Fouss’ day today. He got up this morning. We had film and meetings and he had study hall all morning until shootaround. He’s carrying a big load. He and Atiki (Ally Atiki) both were terrific.”
“Fouss is a freshman, so he’s learning at the same time that he’s playing a lot of minutes,” Lucas said. “Fouss is a very special player. He thinks he’s supposed to make every shot. Sometimes he gets down on himself. But I tell him, ‘Fouss, I haven’t met anybody that went 100% from the field as much as you play and shoot the ball.’ It’s all about confidence with Fouss.
“He’s a freshman so we try to guide him as much as we can and help him learn on the fly. I have the utmost confidence in Fouss,” Lucas continued. “It was just a matter of time for him to have another good game. It’s college basketball. Who doesn’t go into slumps? Steph Curry went into a slump last month. Everybody has them. It’s part of the game. The best thing about it is, we’ve got a couple more games this season to be able to come over it.”
Gideon George also played a key role for BYU by scoring 18 points — a season-high and one shy of his career-high — including 4 of 7 from 3-point territory. He also added five rebounds.
Trevin Knell, Spencer Johnson and Seneca Knight also hit massive 3-pointers in the second half. Caleb Lohner secured a crucial offensive rebound that led to Knight’s 3 with 2:26 remaining. As a team, the Cougars were 12 of 31 from deep.
While Knight scored only four points, his last point spelled the difference for BYU. Knight’s free throw with one second left on the clock in overtime sealed the victory for the Cougars.
“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.”
Lucas was thrilled for Knight, his teammate and roommate.
“I knew he was making that (free throw),” he said. “I didn’t have to look at the basket. Before, I was telling him, ‘No pressure. This is what you’re made for, this is what you came here for.’ And he knocked it down, just like I thought he would.
“The second one, I definitely turned around so they didn’t try anything tricky. But the first one I knew was good. I wasn’t worried. I was actually talking to Caleb, ‘Hey, this is good. Don’t even worry about it.’ I’m just so proud of Seneca.
“It just shows the work that he’s put in and the dedication to this team. Sen’s battled some things personally,” Lucas continued. “He had our back as a team and we’ve had his back while he’s been battling some things. I’m just super proud of him. That’s my roommate; that’s like my brother. I’m just happy that he was able to knock it down.”
Knight intentionally missed the second free throw and LMU rebounded the ball.
“It doesn’t allow them to run the baseline. And you take a little bit off the clock,” Pope said of Knight’s intentional miss. “Point-seven second doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s a lot. Ultimately, we wanted to burn as much clock as we can at that point.”
With .7 of a second left, the Lions attempted a long, high-arching desperation pass. Eli Scott came up with the ball but wasn’t able to get a shot off before the final buzzer.
What was going through Lucas’ mind on that final play?
“Just get a hand up. I actually thought (the pass) was going to hit the scoreboard up at the top,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Please hit it so it can be out of bounds.’ I knew there was the slimmest chance, if they make that shot … I’d be scared if they had like a Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga’s 7-foot star freshman) down there that could just tip it in. I have faith in our guys. As long as we got a hand on the ball, I knew it would be over with.”
And, finally, BYU’s four-game losing streak is over with as well. While the Cougars’ next game was less than 48 hours away at Pepperdine, they enjoyed the moment.