It’s pretty clear that if BYU has any chance of knocking off Saint Mary’s this weekend, it will require a strong defensive performance.

Cougars on the air

BYU (19-8, 7-5)

at Saint Mary’s (21-6, 9-3) 

Saturday, 8 p.m. MST

University Credit Union Pavilion


Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM

That’s something that was sorely lacking last weekend in wins over Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. The Cougars allowed 82 and 85 points, respectively, against the Lions and Waves, two of the worst teams in the West Coast Conference.

The Cougars are looking to recapture their defensive identity that helped them win 17 of their first 21 games — including a 52-43 win over the Gaels in Provo on Jan. 8 — before slipping in that area of late.

Certainly, BYU will need help from defensive-minded guard Spencer Johnson against Saint Mary’s Saturday (8 p.m. MST, ESPN2), especially since it could be without injured forward Fousseyni Traore.

Aside from defense, Johnson can do a little bit of everything. He is fresh off a solid game at Pepperdine last Saturday. He came off the bench to hit 4 of 9 shots, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range, and finished with 12 points, four rebounds, two assists and one steal. 

How does the 6-foot-5 junior from American Fork view his role?

“I would say, I feel like I’m kind of the do-it-all guy. I come in and we need a stop or a rebound or a shot, or I need to clap for my guys on the bench. It’s a really important role. It’s the role I feel like I’ve taken on.” —  Spencer Johnson

“I would say, I feel like I’m kind of the do-it-all guy,” he said. “I come in and we need a stop or a rebound or a shot, or I need to clap for my guys on the bench. It’s a really important role. It’s the role I feel like I’ve taken on.”

Guard Alex Barcello said his team relies heavily on Johnson’s defensive contributions. 

“Spencer, how he plays on the defensive end, he’s always getting his hands in the gap, getting a hand on the ball, slapping it away, whether he comes up with the steal or not. He freezes their offense. He makes us work better on the defensive end.”

Coach Mark Pope knows what Johnson means to this team. 

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“He’s been a star, man. He’s probably the most undervalued person on our team. I’m not saying that because we undervalue what he does,” he said. “He gets the least amount of attention for the incredible work that he does. There’s zero chance we have the success this year and last year without him. None. The problem with Spence is, he never gets tired. He’s shooting the ball unbelievably well and his metrics are ridiculous. Great story.” 

For Johnson, defense is all about a mental approach and preparation. 

“It’s studying the game and seeing guys’ tendencies and where they’re lacking and where they’re good,” he said. “It’s exploiting guys and baiting them into doing things you want them to do.”

Pope also praised Johnson’s versatility.

“I wonder why I ever take him out of the game, really. He is so impactful on the court. He’s not putting up spectacular numbers but he’s taking care of the ball, he’s a good ball-mover right now, and he’ll bang 3s when he needs to,” he said. “He’s really good downhill. His work defensively is such a gift to our team. He just goes out there and disrupts everything. He’s terrific. Every single game, I feel like he’s the unsung hero. He’s doing an incredible job for us.”

As has been chronicled before, Johnson took a circuitous path to BYU. When Pope was the head coach at Utah Valley University, he recruited him out of American Fork High but after his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Italy, Johnson attended Weber State and UVU, though he didn’t play for either school. While at UVU, Pope took the head coaching job at BYU. Johnson landed at Salt Lake Community College. 

“That takes a ton of courage. He left a Division I scholarship and went to play junior college his second year,” Pope said. “It’s really an extraordinary thing because you take that step back and people write you off. At times, it can feel like you’re confirming the fact that … people say you’re not good enough and then you’re going from Division I back to junior college.

“To take a step backward takes an immense amount of courage. Most of us would kind of hide somewhere and be like, ‘I’m fine not being in the right place.’ You think about the courage it takes for Spencer to do that. He bet on himself. He’s like, ‘I know I can do this. I know, given another chance, I can prove to everybody in the country that I’m good enough to play this game.’”

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At SLCC in 2019-20, Johnson averaged 13.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists while shooting 49% from the field and 37% from 3-point territory. He helped SLCC post a 29-4 record and the No. 4 overall seed in the NJCAA Tournament, which was canceled due to the pandemic. 

“That was the greatest thing I could have done for my career,” Johnson said of his time at SLCC. “It was taking a step back and re-evaluating what I valued and where I wanted to go. The options were wide open at that point. I could stay there, I could stop playing, or go anywhere I wanted that was recruiting me.

“I met a ton of great teammates there and the coaches were phenomenal. It was the best thing ever. I’m super grateful for that journey. … It’s been this twisty, windy, long road to get where I am. But I’m super grateful for it.”

BYU guard Spencer Johnson celebrates as BYU and San Diego play at the Marriott Center on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.
BYU guard Spencer Johnson celebrates as BYU and San Diego play at the Marriott Center on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Whether hitting a big 3 or being a lockdown defender, Johnson isn’t above doing the dirty work. | BYU

Johnson averaged 5.2 points and 2.3 rebounds last season for the Cougars. He’s averaging 6.1 points and 3.2 rebounds this season. 

“I feel a lot more confident compared to last year. I’m more confident with the ball in my hands. One way I really wanted to grow was coming off a ball screen and making the right decision,” Johnson said. “When you look at all the numbers, I’ve really improved that way. I’m taking care of the ball and making the right decision. Just confidence in shooting the ball, getting in the right spot, and letting it fly and not worrying about it.”

There’s another reason why Johnson feels more confident this season. Last summer, he married Isabella Yates.

“I became a way better basketball player once I got married,” he said.

His wife is the daughter of former BYU basketball player Robbie Yates, who played for the Cougars in the 1990s.

“He wore No. 20 and I wear No. 20. I figured that out after I chose the number. That’s kind of cool,” Johnson said. “I became a way better basketball player and a way better person. She helps me out in being able to talk through things and supporting me. She’s the ultimate teammate. You guys say I made a ton of strides but it was really actually because of her.”

BYU will be relying in part on Johnson — his defense and his all-around play — heading into Saturday’s showdown at Saint Mary’s.