Fresh off its first postseason victory since 2016, BYU is seeking another one. Two more will carry the Cougars to New York.
No. 2-seeded BYU hosts No. 6 Northern Iowa Saturday (7 p.m. MDT, ESPN+) at the Marriott Center in a second-round NIT showdown.
The winner will take on the winner of No. 1 seed SMU and No. 4 Washington State next week. SMU and Washington State meet Sunday in Dallas.
Northern Iowa knocked off No. 3 Saint Louis 80-68 on the road Wednesday.
Like a lot of teams in the NIT, BYU was disappointed not to get into the NCAA Tournament. But it is motivated by the opportunity to advance to the NIT semifinals in New York City’s venerable Madison Square Garden.
National Invitation Tournament
No. 6 Northern Iowa (20-11)
at No. 2 BYU (23-10)
Saturday, 7 p.m. MDT
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
That motivation revealed itself in the Cougars’ 93-72 victory over Long Beach State Wednesday.
Before his coaching career, BYU coach Mark Pope spent several years in New York City, playing for the New York Knicks and attending medical school at Columbia University.
The Cougars would love to win two more games and play in the Big Apple.
“Our approach is just the same as it’s always been. We’re going to have fun, play the game of basketball, fight for each other and make plays,” said forward Caleb Lohner, who scored a career-high 20 points against LBSU. “In the second half, it was fun for us to see us play for each other at a really high level — moving the ball and it showed.
“We went on that 20-point run and now we get to play another game. It all comes down to we just want to play more. If we keep winning, we get to go to New York, coach’s old stomping grounds, and have a good time.”
In BYU’s recent NIT history, it’s been either feast or famine.
The Cougars won three games and reached New York City in 2013 and in 2016, before falling in the semifinals both times.
In 2017 and in 2018, BYU lost in its first-round NIT matchups.
BYU and Northern Iowa have played two common opponents — Liberty and Missouri State.
Both the Cougars and Panthers played in the Diamond Head Classic at Christmastime. That’s where Northern Iowa lost 76-74 to Liberty. BYU beat Liberty 80-75.
The Cougars won at Missouri State 74-68 in early December. UNI beat Missouri State twice, at home and on the road.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson is in his 16th season at the helm. He was named the Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year for a fifth time after leading the Panthers to the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title.
A.J. Green is the Panthers’ leading scorer, averaging 18.9 points per game. He is the two-time Larry Bird MVC Player of the Year. He’s shooting 41% from the field, 38% from the 3-point line and 91.5% from the free-throw line.
“They have some kid that is just a scoring machine. He puts up 50 every night or something crazy,” Pope said. “I know they’re really well-coached. I know they’re really disciplined. I expect that they shoot the ball well and I expect it to be a great matchup.”
Pope was thrilled with the crowd of 5,511 that attended Wednesday’s game against LBSU.
“How great was this gym? There were times in the first half when things were going wrong and a bunch of times in the second half where I was like, ‘I can’t believe all these people came out for this.’ They were in it and they made it fun,” he said. “We must be the most blessed team in the world that we get to play in this building and these fans come and show out. It is a gift. There are a lot of college players who will play their whole careers and never play in that (environment). They made a huge difference.”
“They have some kid that is just a scoring machine. He puts up 50 every night or something crazy. I know they’re really well-coached. I know they’re really disciplined. I expect that they shoot the ball well and I expect it to be a great matchup.” — BYU coach Mark Pope on Northern Iowa
BYU pulled away from Long Beach State in the second half. The Cougars are hoping for an even bigger crowd Saturday.
Pope said there are a lot of good opponents in the NIT, like LBSU.
“We like to play terrific teams. They are a championship team. They won their conference championship. It’s not easy to win a conference championship. We’ve never done it here in the (West Coast Conference). It says a lot about their team. It’s always fun to play against really good teams. Certainly, they are that. They suffered a massive disappointment, one point away from being in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a privilege to play against really good teams.”
According to Lohner, BYU has turned the disappointment of not getting into the NCAA Tournament into motivation to go deep in the NIT.
“It just shows who these guys are. We’re going to keep coming, no matter what we’re thrown, no matter what situation we’re in,” he said. “That’s one thing that I can trust every one of these guys to do — fight for me.”
And the Cougars are hoping that fight and togetherness take them all the way to New York City.