How BYU changed the game in the 2nd half and earned a win over Long Beach State in the 1st round of the NIT
The Cougars went on a big 21-0 run midway through the second half to take control of the game.
For BYU, the first half of Wednesday’s first round National Invitation Tournament game was no day at the Beach.
Long Beach State’s frantic, frenetic pace, highlighted by a vexing full-court press, had the Cougars on their heels through the first 20 minutes at the Marriott Center. BYU trailed 46-41 at halftime.
The Cougars were getting pressed — and, as a result they were pressing, as in feeling some pressure.
As coach Mark Pope would explain later, his team was trying to process a lot of emotions. All season long, BYU was pointing to an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, not a berth to the NIT.
But as his players stepped onto the floor at the start of the second half, Pope was smiling and clapping, urging them to loosen up and have fun.
The Cougars did just that. They played much better and took advantage of the weaknesses in LBSU’s press. Still with 11:41 remaining in the game, the game was tied at 57-apiece.
And that’s when the Cougars flipped a switch, going on a 21-0 scoring binge to take a 78-57 advantage and wrest control of the game.
In the end, BYU (23-10), the No. 2 seed in the NIT, defeated Long Beach State 93-72 in front of a crowd of 5,511.
It marked the Cougars’ first postseason victory since it beat Creighton in Provo in the 2016 NIT. It was Pope’s first postseason victory as BYU’s head coach.
“I think we had a little bit of fun tonight. It’s our first game in the NIT. Not exactly where we wanted to be but I think everyone on the roster now is kind of enjoying it. This is where we are,” said Cougar forward Caleb Lohner, who poured in a career-high 20 points. “This is the ride we’re going to take. Tonight was a good showcase of all of us playing together. It took us a while to get it turned on and start playing like us but I think that was some of the emotions and a few other factors going into it. But we ended the game on a high note and we’re moving on to the next round.”
BYU hosts Northern Iowa Saturday at 7 p.m. in the second round of the NIT.
As evidence of playing together, the Cougars recorded 28 assists on 36 made baskets. They also outscored LBSU in the paint 48-20. In the second half, BYU also outscored the Beach 52-26, and shot 60% from the field.
Long Beach State (20-13) won the Big West Conference regular season title but fell by one point in the waning seconds to Cal State Fullerton in the conference tournament championship game.
Certainly, both teams were experiencing the a wide array of feelings on Wednesday, knowing that a loss would end their respective seasons, and dealing with the disappointment of not being invited to the Big Dance.
“We’re all working on our emotions right now. There are two tiers of teams in the NIT. There are teams that are like, ‘We made it.’ For those teams scratching and clawing to get in, this is an incredible opportunity,” Pope said. “For some of the teams that had expectations and dreams of being in the NCAA Tournament, it can be harder to collect your emotions. That’s no secret. The one thing that I took into this game with a lot of confidence, whether we played well or not played well, we fought. This team has a lot of fight. It’s in their DNA. They fight for each other. There were times in the first half where I was convincing myself that that was true. Certainly, those guys proved it again.”
As well as the second half went for the Cougars, the first half was a different story.
BYU led only once in the first half, 2-0. The Cougars had 10 turnovers and LBSU had 15 points off those turnovers, as they had trouble with the press and almost every inbounds pass was an adventure. The Beach also hit 17 of 19 from the free throw line.
Alex Barcello had just three points in the first half, on a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left before intermission. Meanwhile, LBSU had four players in double figures in the first half and the Cougars found themselves down by five points at halftime.
What was the difference in the second half?
“We were holding ourselves back a little bit. At halftime we talked about how against pressure, we were trying not to make a mistake. And it was also finding our whole hearts,” Pope said. “It was the process that every team in this tournament is going to go through. A team that puts pressure up front is just begging for you to tear them to pieces on the back side. If you can attack the beginning of it and make plays on the back side. It was there the whole night. We just got more comfortable, which is what we thought we would do. We kept talking about finding a rhythm. That’s why these games are fun because you have a chance to break it open like that.”
“I think it was just us playing, having fun and trusting each other,” said Lohner of the 21-0 second-half run, which included 3-pointers by Gideon George, Barcello, Spencer Johnson and Trevin Knell. “We also started to get stops more and more in the second half. Those stops led to transition buckets and gave us some juice on the offensive end.”
George finished with 16 points, Barcello ended up with 14 (with five assists), Fousseyni Traore had 11 and Knell added 10. Atiki Ally Atiki contributed eight points and a team-high nine rebounds.
Te’Jon Lucas scored six points and dished out seven assists and Johnson had six points, four rebounds and three assists.
That 21-0 run was the difference-maker.
“At that point of the game, it just kind of clicked. Everyone was looking at each other differently. We were on attack mode,” Lohner said. “We were trying to score the ball, getting stops, talking loud on defense. We did the right things to help us win. At the beginning of the game, some of that wasn’t completely there.”
LBSU guard Joel Murray scored a game-high 24 points while Colin Slater, the Big West Player of the Year, finished with 15 before fouling out.
Pope loved how his team was able to break Long Beach State’s press and turn those into scoring opportunities.
“This was going to be a really fun game to start the NIT in. It’s a game that could be disastrous but it could be exactly what the doctor ordered in terms of making plays,” he said. “The question was, do we respond to the pressure well and take advantage of all the openings behind it. Can we be good decision-makers and take care of the ball? Or are we going to get crushed by the pressure? The way they play, they force you to make decisions. I thought Caleb was unbelievable at the point of attack, making decisions. It’s a game that begs for assists.”
So with the win, the Cougars kept their season alive and it’s on to the second round of the NIT.
“We weren’t our very best in the first half,” Pope said. “But we believed that if we kept knocking on the door, the game would come to us. The guys did that.”