With his leg heavily taped up and wrapped up, BYU forward Caleb Lohner limped out of the Marriott Center and into the frigid February night late Thursday.
That scene could have been a metaphor for his team right now.
The Cougars are limping along, feeling bruised and beaten.
In the wake of a pair of losses on the road last week, BYU was hoping for a change of fortunes. The Cougars were back home, coach Mark Pope tinkered with the starting lineup, and they got off to a quick, early lead against San Francisco.
But the Dons dominated the final eight minutes of the first half, built up a 21-point second-half lead, and held off a late BYU rally to earn a decisive 73-59 victory.
As a result, the Cougars (17-7, 5-4) have now lost three consecutive games and they also had their 12-game home winning streak snapped in front of 13,361 fans.
BYU barely outshot USF (40% to 39.1%) but it was out-rebounded 45-37. The Cougars entered the night as the No. 1 team in the nation in total rebounds.
“We’ve kind of lost our identity. It’s partly circumstantial … As a rebounding team, we’re not functional,” Pope said. “Today we get 10 offensive rebounds and only scored four points off those. That’s not us. We ended up giving up 12 offensive rebounds. And that’s not us. We end up losing the rebounding game by seven. And that’s not us.”
No doubt USF (18-5, 5-3) is a very good team, evidenced by its No. 36 ranking in the NCAA’s NET going into Thursday’s game. With the win, the Dons may have just punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“This is a really good San Francisco team. Congratulations to them. They’re skilled, veteran and big,” Pope said. “They executed really well and they hurt us in a lot of ways. We’re clearly disappointed with the outcome. The game is testing us a little bit right now. We’ll find some answers.”
It wasn’t just that BYU lost this game. The Cougars looked lost for much of the game’s 40 minutes.
A week ago, BYU had never lost back-to-back games under Pope during the regular season. Now, the Cougars have lost three in a row.
“This is something these guys have never experienced before,” Pope said. “It’s something that we as a staff haven’t experienced here before.”
Senior guard Alex Barcello once again carried most of the offensive load Thursday, with not much help around him.
Barcello finished with 25 points on 8 of 13 shooting from the floor. But BYU’s other four starters combined for just eight points.
Gideon George replaced Lohner in the starting lineup — it was the first time Pope changed his starting lineup since inserting Fousseyni Traore on Christmas Day during the Diamond Head Classic.
George shot 1 of 6 from the floor and had two points, Te’Jon Lucas was 1 of 5 and finished with two points, Traore was 0 of 1 from the field and had one point and Trevin Knell scored three points on 1 of 4 shooting.
San Francisco’s starters, on the other hand, went like this: Yauhen Massalski (16 points, 13 rebounds), Patrick Tape (10 points), Khalil Shabazz (15 points), Jamareee Bouyea (13 points) and Gabe Stefanini (15 points).
That’s right, all five of the Dons’ starters scored in double figures.
Another staggering stat that offers a glimpse into BYU’s woes right now — the Cougars hit only 12 of 25 shots from the free throw line. That’s 13 misses from the charity stripe. And that proved costly.
BYU jumped out to a 12-4 lead as Barcello scored the Cougars’ first eight points. But from there, San Francisco gradually took control, thanks in large part to its 3-point shooting. Shabazz and Bouyee started to heat up and they combined to drill three 3-pointers each in the first half.
USF made 8 of 30 3-pointers for the game, including 0 of 9 in the second half. But late in the first half, the Dons were deadly from deep.
“The last two games we really struggled guarding the 3-point line,” Pope said. “Although the percentage was good tonight because they went south in the second half, that stretch, the last seven minutes of the first half, was really brutal for us.”
With 8:36 remaining in the half, BYU held what would be its final lead, 18-16. The Dons outscored the Cougars 24-7 the rest of the half.
Bouyea nailed a 38-footer with four seconds remaining in the half to give the Dons a 15-point lead, 40-25.
“We’re not a team that gives up 40 in the first half,” Pope said. “That’s just not us.”
The Cougars shot just 36% and made just 5 of 13 free throws in the first half. Barcello had 14 of BYU’s 25 points at intermission.
USF scored six straight points to start the second half, extending its advantage to 46-25.
Things got chippy in the second half as both teams were whistled for multiple technical fouls.
The most heated moment came with a little more than four minutes remaining, when USF’s Zane Meeks shoved Lohner as the two chased a loose ball out of bounds near BYU’s bench. Lohner retaliated by shoving Meeks. After watching the replay, the officials called a double technical on Meeks and Lohner.
Meanwhile, BYU freshman Atiki Ally Atiki scored a career-high 10 points to go along with a career-high four blocks, while Seneca Knight contributed 12 points.
But the Cougars had 14 turnovers, leading to 16 USF points. San Francisco also outscored BYU in second-chance points, 9-4.
Overall, the Cougars’ offensive struggles and defensive lapses were bewildering.
“Right now, if you take the game, we’re like a 60% looking-like-us team,” Pope said. “Then we’re 40% where you’re like, ‘Man, we just don’t recognize ourselves in terms of the decision-making on the floor.’ That’s my responsibility.”
Pope characterized the mood in the locker room after the game as “super somber. A lot of frustration, a lot of wonder, a lot of worry, a lot of doubt, a lot of uncertainty.”
And on Saturday, a bruised and battered BYU team hosts No. 2 Gonzaga.
The Cougars might be limping along for a while longer.