LAS VEGAS — Just about an hour before tipoff Saturday night at Orleans Arena, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi articulated, very concisely, was what on the line for BYU in the West Coast Conference quarterfinals against San Francisco. 

Everybody already knew that it was a massive game. But when Lunardi speaks, everybody pays attention. 

“A BYU win ... against San Francisco should result in a record four bids for the WCC,” Lunardi tweeted, and he had the Cougars moving into “Last Four In” the Big Dance. 

Unfortunately for No. 5 seeded BYU (22-10), it squandered an opportunity — a Golden opportunity — for a Quad 1 victory and a chance to bolster its resume and get on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. 

No. 4 San Francisco led almost the entire game and defeated the Cougars 75-63. 

Afterward, Lunardi tweeted, “BYU slides out of the projected field with the loss against San Francisco.”

The Dons (24-8), meanwhile, may have clinched their spot in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m proud of my guys. This was a big game for a multitude of reasons. If you’d been listening to the media all week, they were trying to build this up as an elimination game. I didn’t feel that that was the case with our body of work. We left no doubt tonight,” said USF coach Todd Golden.

“We controlled the game after the first four minutes. These guys (Khalil Shabazz and Jamaree Bouyea) are the two best guards in the league. I’m really excited that this team is going to be dancing.”

Golden called it “one of the biggest wins in the last 35 years” in program history. 

“It secures our (NCAA) Tournament bid,” he added.

As for BYU? Its NCAA Tournament hopes remain precarious at best. The Cougars could be headed for the National Invitation Tournament. 

BYU had no answer for Shabazz and Bouyea. Shabazz poured in 22 points, including 5 of 9 from 3-point range, while Bouyea finished with 18 points and four assists.

What impact did Shabazz and Bouyea have on the outcome?

“Everything is run through them. A big impact,” said BYU guard Spencer Johnson. “They made shots and a lot of tough shots. They were good tonight.”

“They’re terrific players. They’re dangerous,” said coach Mark Pope. “They complement each other really well. They’re also a really disruptive force on the defensive end in different ways.”

BYU, meanwhile, shot just 38% from the field, including a miserable 3 of 20 from 3-point range. 

Combined, Gideon George, Caleb Lohner and Trevin Knell hit only 2 of 18 from the floor.

The Cougar offense, which looked so sharp in Friday’s second-round win over LMU, sputtered most of the night against USF.

Alex Barcello ended up with 19 points but hit only 1 of 5 from 3-point territory. Fousseyni Traore recorded another double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds and Johnson added 11 points on 4 of 4 shooting.

“There were some things that we didn’t do as well tonight as we had the last two weeks, some point of attack things that were a little bit surprising that we didn’t manage as well as we had,” Pope said.

“We were 3 of 20 from the 3-point line. Part of that was because we’ve just got to find ways to find each other shots more consistently.”

The game was close throughout the first half as the Dons took a 27-24 lead into the locker room at halftime.

Early in the second half, the Cougars trailed 31-29, but then Barcello and Te’Jon Lucas picked up their third and fourth fouls, respectively. 

The Dons seemed to get stronger as the game went on. 

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With 13 minutes left, BYU missed three 3s on one possession as Trevin Knell banged a shot off the side of the backboard, Lohner missed another one and then Lucas airballed a 3 that went out of bounds. 

Moments later, USF went on an 11-0 run, capped by a Shabazz 3-pointer to grab a 15-point lead, 54-39. 

With a little more than four minutes remaining, a floater by Barcello pulled to within eight points, 60-52. 

But seconds later, Shabazz responded with another 3-pointer, pushing USF’s lead back to double-digits, 63-52. 

“We gave up some easy buckets in transition and it kind of got them going,” Johnson said. “It was nothing huge. Some rebounds we didn’t come up with and didn’t bounce our way.”

In the closing seconds of the game, Bouyea took a pass after a steal and instead of running out the clock, he jammed a resounding dunk. His histrionics after the slam drew a technical foul. 

As Golden said later, that was an exclamation point on a convincing win, one that meant a lot to USF’s program.  

The victory also meant a lot to Don big man Volodymyr Markovetskyy, a Ukrainian whose father is defending his homeland in Ukraine against Russian forces. 

Markovetskyy only scored three points but he made life tough for BYU inside Saturday night. 

For the Cougars, it was a forgettable performance.

They made only 11 of 18 free throws in the second half and were outrebounded, 41-37. 

Pope described the locker room after the disappointing loss. 

“Incredibly competitive guys that put their whole heart and soul into this. Guys played with a great edge the last three weeks, trying to resurrect themselves after taking some hits,” he said.

“They did an unbelievable job fighting back. When you invest that much, It’s hard to lose. They understood the opportunity they had in front of them tonight and they put everything they had into it … It hurts.”

USF is good, Johnson said, but so is his team.

“Credit to them. They played really well. Playing against high-level teams is always a battle,” he said.

“They came out and hit some shots. It just didn’t go our way tonight, but I totally think we’re a tournament team. We have the guys and the resume. We’ll bounce back. We always do and we always will.”

Now the Cougars will wait, a full week, until Selection Sunday, to find out their postseason fate. 

“We’re excited to keep playing,” Pope said. “It’s a special group. We’re hopeful.”