MORAGA, California — For BYU, Saturday’s game at Saint Mary’s served as a huge opportunity for the Cougars, who have been sitting precariously on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

It was a chance to keep their at-large tournament hopes alive. It was a chance to enhance their Big Dance resume with a Quad 1 showdown on the road.

In a typical, physical BYU-Saint Mary’s game, the Cougars battled back from a 16-point deficit in the second half and had opportunities to upset the Gaels.

But, in the end, Saint Mary’s held off BYU 69-64 at University Credit Union Pavilion. 

And now, it appears BYU’s at-large hopes have been dashed.

“It’s an awful loss. It’s a really painful loss. It hurts us a lot. But how could you not be more proud of these guys in terms of how hard they fight?” said coach Mark Pope.

“You’re on the road against a really good team. It’s our third road game in a row. Sometimes it happens. We just didn’t play well enough, but we fought hard. I’m super proud of our guys.”

While Saint Mary’s was led by guard Tommy Kuhse, who scored a game-high 25 points, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range, Cougar guard Alex Barcello finished with a team-high 22 points.

Barcello helped bring BYU (19-9, 7-6) back from a 62-45 deficit with eight minutes remaining. He knocked down a 3-pointer with 1:47 left to pull the Cougars to within 67-64.

But BYU never scored again. Barcello missed a couple of 3-pointers over the final 34 seconds. 

“Those are just hard shots. He’s got four people guarding him on every possession. They’re hard,” Pope said of Barcello.

“I thought he played his guts out. He has to take such hard shots to get them off. A couple of them were super close. They just didn’t go on. That’s life on the road against good teams. Sometimes that happens. His fight and tenacity is unimpeachable. It’s really special.”

3 keys in BYU’s 69-64 loss to Saint Mary’s

Freshman Fousseyni Traore, who suffered a groin injury late in the overtime win against Loyola Marymount on Feb. 10 and was sidelined for BYU’s win over Pepperdine on Feb. 12, didn’t practice early in the week but he was able to practice later in the week and he started Saturday.

In 25 minutes of action, Traore scored four points, grabbed five rebounds and had five turnovers against Saint Mary’s.

“I thought he was good. It’s a hard environment for a young guy,” Pope said of Traore. “We had a hard time protecting the ball. That’s youth, right? But he hadn’t crossed halfcourt in practice at all before this game. I thought he battled and I thought he fought really hard. I’m super proud of him.”

Seneca Knight scored 10 points, while Caleb Lohner had nine points and 11 rebounds. Gideon George ended up with nine points and six rebounds, while Te’Jon Lucas had eight points, four assists and five turnovers. 

While the Cougars — who never had a lead all night — outrebounded the Gaels 34-26, BYU had 17 turnovers and Saint Mary’s scored 16 points off of those giveaways.

Since joining the West Coast Conference in 2011-12, the Cougars have only won twice in Moraga — in 2014 and last season.

Saint Mary’s snapped a three-game losing streak against BYU. The Gaels, who lost to the Cougars 52-43 in Provo last month, hadn’t beaten BYU since a 51-50 decision in the 2020 WCC Tournament semifinals. 

Going into the night, Saint Mary’s was No. 19 in the NCAA’s NET rankings coming into the day while BYU checked in at No. 51.

Saturday, every time Saint Mary’s (22-6, 10-3) tried to take control of the game, BYU rallied. 

The Cougars trailed 8-2 early on but Knight and Barcello drilled back-to-back 3s to tie the game. Later, the Gaels went up 25-16 but BYU responded with an 8-0 run, capped by a layup by Lucas with five minutes remaining in the half. 

But the Cougars had no answer for Kuhse, who scored 20 points in the first half, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

Kuhse scored a layup with two seconds remaining on the clock as Saint Mary’s led at halftime, 34-30. 

In the second half, BYU tied the game at 40-apiece at the 17:20 mark on Seneca Knight’s bucket, but he missed the ensuing and-on at the free throw line. 

The Gaels went on an 11-0 run over a three-minute stretch to take a 57-44 advantage. That included consecutive 3-pointers by Kyle Bowen.

That lead was extended to 62-46 and it appeared the Cougars were finished.

“We went through a little turnover spell. Sometimes it happens in a game, … you want to fix it so bad that you put yourself in harm’s way. We gave up two or three transition buckets in a row,” Pope said.

“We got stuck in rotations and switching a little bit and they knocked down a  couple of corner 3s. It was a little bit of a snowball effect. We were trying a little bit too hard to help our team on the offensive end and put ourselves in bad situations on the defensive end.”

BYU kept chipping away at the deficit, but the Cougars could never get a lead. Saint Mary’s scored only one field goal over the final 4:24 of the game but the Gaels clamped down defensively in the waning minutes.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys’ fight. To come in here and out-rebound them on the offensive glass and the defensive glass and kind of battle the whole night,” Pope said.

“We got down but we stayed with it. I couldn’t be more proud of the guys that way. They just showed big-time character and big-time fight. We just weren’t good enough to win.”

BYU hosts Loyola Marymount Thursday.