In the aftermath of BYU’s loss at No. 23 Saint Mary’s Saturday night, the Cougars boarded a flight home to Provo.
Coach Mark Pope described his players as “devastated” during the trip home after they fought back from a 16-point second-half deficit yet still fell 69-64 to the Gaels.
Cougars on the air
Loyola Marymount (9-16, 2-11)
at BYU (19-9, 7-6)
Thursday, 8 p.m. MST
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
Despite the loss, and despite BYU’s precarious status on the NCAA Tournament bubble, Pope is optimistic about the direction his team is going, heading into the final weekend of the West Coast Conference regular season.
Pope liked the Cougars’ “energy and commitment and fight” against the Gaels in a hostile environment. He was pleased that his team was able to outrebound Saint Mary’s while acknowledging that it needs to do a better job of hanging onto the ball.
BYU hosts the two worst teams in the WCC — Loyola Marymount on Thursday (8 p.m. MST, CBS Sports Network) and Pepperdine Saturday — followed by the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas the following week.
At this stage of the season, Pope likes the state of his team, which has lost five of its last seven games. His team’s performance at Saint Mary’s gives him hope.
“We’re trying to continue that momentum. These two games are huge for us this week. I’m not even talking about two games. This game Thursday is huge for us. It’s really important,” he said. “It will continue this trajectory that I believe that we’re on.
“My guys were really devastated on this flight going home (after the Saint Mary’s game). They fought so hard and just came up a little bit short. I told them from the depths of my soul that I believe our best basketball is ahead of us. I really do.
“I know that might sound odd to say this late in the season, but I believe it,” he continued. “I believe our best basketball is ahead of us. We’ve just got to go grab it. It’s exciting. What more can you want?”
The Cougars could be without starting forward Seneca Knight, who suffered a thumb injury at Saint Mary’s.
On Thursday, BYU (19-9, 7-6) faces an LMU team that it faced just two weeks ago in Los Angeles. The Lions built a 17-point lead early in the second half before the Cougars came roaring back. BYU prevailed 83-82 in overtime as Knight hit the game-winning free throw with one second remaining.
That win snapped a four-game losing streak.
LMU (9-16, 2-11), meanwhile, has lost nine consecutive games, including a 69-66 setback at Pacific last Saturday.
But considering BYU almost lost to the Lions in their previous matchup, the Cougars certainly aren’t overlooking them.
“This LMU team has lost a bunch of games in a row but they just had a chance to tie the game with the last possession at Santa Clara, and we know they’re a good team,” Pope said. “They played us to overtime in their gym. They’re shooting the ball much better as a team.”
In Los Angeles against BYU, forward Keli Leaupepe scored a team-high 26 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while forward Eli Scott finished with 16 points and six rebounds. The Lions hit 10 of 23 3-pointers. Cam Shelton made 4 of 7 from 3-point range.
BYU forward Fousseyni Traore scored 19 points, tying a career-high, collected 12 rebounds and blocked four shots in that contest.
Certainly, a blowout win over the Lions would help the Cougars’ metrics. But BYU just wants a victory, no matter how it comes.
“Our whole priority is, we’re not in a position right now where we’re talking about margin of victory,” Pope said. “We’re trying to get the margin of victory to be at least one. One, or greater.”
The Cougars continue to feel a sense of urgency as the regular season winds down against lowly LMU and Pepperdine. BYU edged the Waves 91-85 in Malibu on Feb. 12.
“These are two good teams that took us to the wire just two weeks ago. These games are going to be hugely challenging for us, just like every game has been all season,” Pope said. “We’re at that point of the season where every win matters. We feel massive urgency. We felt massive urgency the third game of the season, too.
“Every game is so urgent. It’s a really familiar space that we’re living in right now. But it’s the end of the season and it’s win or go home, essentially. That’s how the end of the season is. We’re definitely feeling urgency and it’s familiar.”
“I’ve been trying to stress to guys that we don’t get another chance at this. Just telling guys, ‘We’ve got to do what we came to do — and that’s win. We’ve got to value every position on offense and defense in order to get where we want to go.’” — BYU guard Te’Jon Lucas
Guard Te’Jon Lucas is feeling urgency as well.
“I’ve been trying to stress to guys that we don’t get another chance at this,” he said. “Just telling guys, ‘We’ve got to do what we came to do — and that’s win. We’ve got to value every position on offense and defense in order to get where we want to go.’”
Where BYU wants to go is the NCAA Tournament, though right now, the National Invitation Tournament seems more likely.
Regardless, the Cougars will keep trying to get better every day.
“We’re continuing to work on decision-making. Part of that falls on me, in terms of the plethora of decisions that I invite our players to make. Sometimes, it’s too much,” Pope said. “This team has accomplished so much this year.
“There’s a lot that we do really well. We won two games in a row on the road and we’re a possession away from having a chance of winning three games in a row on the road, including against a top-20 team in the country.
“We didn’t get that,” he continued. “I don’t want that to blur the fact that we’re making progress. Sometimes you’re making real progress and you still drop a really tough game.”
This week, BYU needs its progress to translate into a couple of wins as it gets ready for the postseason.
And Pope believes his team’s best basketball is still to come.