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‘Growing is messy’: How will BYU respond vs. ‘dangerous’ Pepperdine team after tough loss to Zags?

Does coach Mark Pope consider the narrow setback a missed opportunity for his young team?

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BYU head coach Mark Pope exits the court after the Cougars lost to No. 8 Gonzaga , 75-74, at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.

BYU coach Mark Pope exits the court after the Cougars lost to No. 8 Gonzaga , 75-74, at the Marriott Center in Provo. Next up for the Cougars is a game against Pepperdine Saturday night in Provo.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Long before the season even tipped off, and plenty of times since, BYU coach Mark Pope has spoken about the youth of his team and how there would be plenty of growing pains along the way.

The pain was acutely felt in front of a sold-out Marriott Center Thursday night, when the Cougars suffered a heartbreaking 75-74 loss to No. 8 Gonzaga. 

“This group is trying to grow. We have 48 hours until we have a massive, massive challenge on Saturday, to see if we can keep growing. The good that’s coming out of this season so far is 100% due to these guys’ willingness and commitment to get better.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

What does that performance mean for BYU moving forward?

“These guys continue to get better. I think they’re hungry to get better. They’ve been incredibly committed to growing as a team and trying to get better. They’re doing that. We’re finding ways to function a little bit better. … They were good with the extra pass,” Pope said. “You take some punches in the things that you do well. Growing is messy and ugly and painful but it’s also exhilarating and inspiring and fun.

“This group is trying to grow. We have 48 hours until we have a massive, massive challenge on Saturday, to see if we can keep growing. The good that’s coming out of this season so far is 100% due to these guys’ willingness and commitment to get better.”

That “massive, massive challenge” Pope referred to is Pepperdine (7-11, 0-4), which sits in last place in the West Coast Conference standings. The Waves lost at San Diego 92-89 Thursday night.

Pepperdine visits BYU Saturday (7 p.m., MST, BYUtv). 

More about the Waves later.

BYU trailed the Zags by five points at halftime, then its first five field goals of the second half were 3-pointers, while Gonzaga made just 5 of its first 21 shots from the floor.

The Cougars seized a 10-point lead with five minutes remaining and were up 70-63 with 3:09 left. During the final 90 seconds, BYU was doomed by missed shots and turnovers while Gonzaga made a bunch of big plays and big shots. The Zags hit five 3-pointers over the final 1:53. 

The Cougars couldn’t finish. 

Does Pope consider the narrow loss a missed opportunity for his young team?

“I don’t like growing losing. I don’t like growing that way. But when you’re growing, you have to grow through losing sometimes. We’ll see. That story remains to be written. That’s just a matter of how we respond,” Pope said. “Is this game going to make us hungrier and tougher and better and smarter and more dialed in to the importance of little things and more physical on the glass or is this going to send us spiraling?”

Spencer Johnson scored a team-high 18 points against Gonzaga. He hit 3 of 4 from 3-point range and as a team, BYU nailed 13 of 25 from beyond the arc. 

What does Johnson take away from the defeat?

“It hurts, for sure. We were right there. We put ourselves in a really good position to win the game,” he said. “We just couldn’t quite come through. Life and basketball never ask you what happened, they just ask how you’re going to respond and what you’re going to do to make it better and move on and get better.

“We’re going to come (Friday) and we’re going to work and stay together and fix what we need to fix and we’re gonna act like pros about it and move on to the next game.”

The next game is Pepperdine, which is led by Maxwell Lewis, who is averaging 19.7 points per game. He shooting 51.2% from the floor, 41.2% from 3-point territory and 84.7% from the line.

Houston Mallette killed the Cougars last year, averaging 27 points per game in the two matchups with BYU in 2022. Mallette poured in 31 points against the Cougars in Malibu. 

BYUWaves

Cougars on the air


Pepperdine (7-11, 0-4)
at BYU (13-7, 3-2)
Thursday, 7 p.m. MST
Marriott Center
TV: BYUtv
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM


“They might be the best pure offensive team in this league, maybe by far. They’re monsters. These young guys are straight ballers,” Pope said about Pepperdine. “They can score every way, at every level, every single guy on the court. They’re a problem. In any given moment, every single guy is ridiculously dangerous, where you’re like, ‘I don’t know how to guard them.’ They’re a dangerous group.”

Pope remains optimistic that his group will continue to improve as the season goes on. 

“We’ll move forward. We have a huge game Saturday,” he said. “I do believe that we think we can get much better. The challenge for us is, do we have the juice and determination, 20 games into the season, to get up tomorrow and come in just starving and hungry to keep getting better? If we do, then this team still has some great basketball to be played.”

BYU Cougars guard Rudi Williams reacts as BYU leads Gonzaga at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.

BYU Cougars guard Rudi Williams reacts as BYU leads Gonzaga at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. The Cougars ultimately fell to the No. 8 Zags and will face Pepperdine Saturday night in Provo.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News