LAS VEGAS — BYU coach Mark Pope has been saying for a couple of weeks that “I believe our best basketball is ahead of us.”
In the second round of the West Coast Conference Tournament at Orleans Arena on Friday, his team’s performance was close to what he had in mind.
The No. 5-seeded Cougars seized control of the game early against No. 8 Loyola Marymount, going up 15 at halftime, and they never let go in a resounding 85-60 victory.
“I thought we did a great job of having an edge when we stepped out on the court. It’s March. That’s what teams have to play with,” said Cougar guard Alex Barcello, who finished with a team-high 22 points in 26 minutes.
The win sets up a quarterfinals matchup with No. 4 San Francisco Saturday (8:30 p.m. MST, ESPN2).
“I love the edge the guys approach the game with. It starts with Alex. He is carrying a huge burden for us because he’s got to do everything,” said Pope.
“But that’s what the best players in the country do. They have to do everything. … We have to play our best basketball right now. The only chance you have to win in the postseason is if guys step up, and our guys did.”
Offensively, BYU (22-9) displayed crisp ball movement, and it outscored the Lions 48-30 in the paint. Defensively, the Cougars held LMU (11-18) to 41% shooting.
They also outrebounded the Lions 44-25.
After the contest, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe hugged Barcello as they exchanged some words.
What was the message?
“Just keep winning. This is my last go-round. I don’t want to go home,” Barcello said. “I want to dance as far as we can and bring championships to Provo. He’s on board with that. We just want to keep winning. It’s fun when you win.”
Barcello certainly played like he didn’t want to go home — and so did his teammates.
Freshman Fousseyni Traore continued his torrid play, recording a double-double with 15 points, on 6 of 8 shooting from the field and 11 rebounds.
“Just the level he’s playing at right now as a freshman, it’s really amazing,” Barcello said of Traore. “He’s a huge part of our team.”
Trevin Knell came off the bench to score 15, tying a season-high, including a pair of 3-pointers.
In his last game in the WCC Tournament, a loss to No. 1 Gonzaga in the championship game last March, Knell scored a career-high 20 points, hitting 5 of 10 3-pointers.
“It’s huge for us,” Barcello said of Knell’s performance. “That’s what we expect.”
Added Pope: “Trev loves this gym. He loves this gym like no player I’ve ever seen. He loves this place. This dude, we hadn’t even landed yet and there was a sparkle in his eye and a confidence.
“If this arena ever gets a home team, they need to draft Trevin Knell because he loves it. He’s so crucial to us. He scored in a lot of different ways today. I was actually most proud of his defensive effort. I thought he was nearly flawless defensively. He had some toughness and he handled his assignment and he was really vocal.”
Caleb Lohner added six points and pulled down 10 rebounds.
Barcello said he told both Lohner and Knell that the Cougars needed “to have everybody firing on all cylinders. Caleb didn’t have the greatest scoring night but he was making plays for us offensively. The way he was keeping our pace on offense … it opened a lot of things up.
“It looked like the game was slower to him out there. I’m just happy with how guys are playing. We all need to be playing our best basketball right now.”
LMU guard Joe Quintana poured in 31 points to tie his career high, including eight 3-pointers, in Thursday’s first-round win over Pacific. Barcello drew the defensive assignment against Quintana to start Friday’s game, then Spencer Johnson came off the bench to defend Quintana.
“This Joe Quintana, against a really good defensive team yesterday, put on a show. He was unconscious,” Pope said. “Usually in back-to-back games, that doesn’t go away. We were extraordinarily concerned about that. Alex had that assignment solo to start the game. The tone he set was unbelievable. It’s what we need to have to stay alive. Everybody else followed suit.”
Barcello said the Cougars were effective at pressuring Quintana, who finished with 12 points on 1 of 6 shooting from 3-point range.
“Together, we worked really well. A guy that came off a 30-point game, him not having a night like that,” Barcello said. “I thought Spencer did a phenomenal job.
“I don’t think he gets all the credit he deserves on the defensive end sometimes. He’s got such a high IQ on the defensive end. He did an amazing job in the second half.”
Lion star Eli Scott scored a 24 points, but he didn’t get enough help.
“He’s a good player. He’s strong. He’s smart,” Traore said of Scott. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Forward Keli Leaupepe, who has been injured recently (he scored 26 against BYU on Feb. 10) warmed up before the game but did not play.
In that game in Los Angeles, LMU opened up a 17-point lead on the Cougars early in the second half before BYU rallied to win in overtime.
There was no such drama this time.
At the 18:12 mark of the second half Friday, BYU extended its lead to 19, which stretched to 25 with six minutes remaining.
“We came to play, and we’re going to come to play tomorrow,” Barcello said. “It’s March — and it’s win or go home.”
TIP-INS: On Friday, Barcello made his 90th consecutive start for BYU. … Former BYU head coach Dave Rose and former BYU assistant Dave Rice attended Friday’s game. … The Cougars had 19 second-chance points, compared to three for LMU. … BYU had 14 assists and 12 turnovers. The Cougars scored 19 points off of 11 LMU turnovers.