Mark Pope doesn’t want BYU basketball to start settling for NIT appearances, but since the Cougars scored a combined 183 points in wins over Long Beach State and Missouri Valley Conference champion Northern Iowa this past week, well, they might as well get fired up about the ride.
See if it ends in New York at Madison Square Garden.
Ever playing the psychologist, Pope knows his team was extremely disappointed in missing out on the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday, and he really needed his team to care enough about the NIT to fight for wins.
He got it Saturday in a 90-71 win over NIU.
In the two NIT wins, he has seen his team combine for 50 assists and two 90-plus point wins.
And have fun.
“These guys really do love each other, and you could see that out there tonight,” said the coach.
Pope got what he called an elite effort from senior guard Te’Jon Lucas and career nights scoring from Gideon George and Trevin Knell to advance against the winner of Sunday’s game between Washington State and SMU.
Noah Carter led NIU with 24 points, with many coming when BYU extended its defense to protect the 3-point line and Carter got layups.
AJ Green had 16 and Trae Berhow added 13.
If WSU wins Sunday, BYU (24-10) will likely host a third straight game. A win by higher seed SMU and the Cougars could be headed to Dallas this coming week.
It took almost a half for BYU’s players to feel the emotion rise in a win over Long Beach State earlier this week but in Saturday night’s win over NIU (20-12), the Cougars were locked and loaded in five minutes after falling behind.
George and Knell combined for 10 long-range buckets to help BYU tie its season record for made 3s with 16.
George had a career-high 27 points and Knell added 15 to lead the Cougars. He made 10 of 15 from the field and 5 of his 9 attempts from deep and the 5 treys were a career-high for Knell.
BYU won this game because of defense and the hot hand from the outside from guys not named Alex Barcello.
The Cougars had 22 assists and just six turnovers while forcing NIU to turn the ball over 12 times, which led to 21 points.
Caleb Lohner took two offensive charges in the first half to spark an 8-0 run, a stretch in which the Cougars made 10 of 12 field goals.
Barcello had a very unusual 1 for 8 night from beyond the arc and finished with just 11 points, but just as big of a challenge, he and freshman Fouss Traore combined to make just seven field goals.
The big thing for Pope in this NIU win was he found complementary players to pick up the slack and make huge shots that led to long runs after NIU took a 15-7 lead in the opening minutes.
“The 50 assists in two games is a big deal for us,” sad Pope. “Part of it is the opponents are heavy bottom, like heavy rotation teams, but the other part of it is because our guys are doing such a good job about reading to the ball. We’re just getting better.
“And part of it is Gideon George getting on the floor and deciding he was going to go 5 for 9 and 10 of 15 and make every shot on balance.”
Pope said Lohner’s two early charges were a tone-setter, that along with his two makes from distance to start the game.
Just before halftime, Spencer Johnson was called for fouling Berhow beyond the 3-point line and Pope was livid, as it appeared Johnson swatted the ball cleanly.
Berhow made all three free throws with just over two seconds to make the score 47-42 at halftime.
Pope had to be restrained after going down the sideline after the ref yelling the call was a pasture biscuit.
He was restrained by two assistant coaches and after the buzzer stood at the free-throw line and stared down the official who made the call.
Afterward, Pope said he probably deserved a technical but he knows and respects the official who made the call and they were kind of baiting each other.
“I was in the wrong,” Pope said. “They have an incredibly tough job to do and we all make mistakes. I make my share.”
The Cougars outshot NIU 52 to 45% and led 27 minutes to NIU’s 10 minutes with the largest BYU lead of 21 at 87-66.
“So, you know for us right now it’s about as much joy and energy and execution as we can get,” said Pope.
“Like, if we can be there and have joy, energy and execution, they will have a chance to keep winning.”