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How BYU outlasted Pepperdine after ‘super emotional’ loss to Gonzaga

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BYU Cougars basketball players huddle during their 91-81 win over the Pepperdine Waves on Saturday, January 14, 2023 at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah.

BYU Cougars basketball players huddle during their 91-81 win over the Pepperdine Waves on Saturday, January 14, 2023 at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah.

BYU Photo

BYU legend Danny Ainge was standing in the back of the room Saturday night where postgame interviews are held inside the bowels of the Marriott Center.

The current CEO of basketball of the Utah Jazz was watching the final minutes of the Jazz’s one-point loss at home to the Philadelphia 76ers on his phone before BYU coach Mark Pope arrived to talk to reporters. 

Ainge was standing outside the room when Pope made his way to the interview session.

“We’ve been there, unfortunately,” Pope said when he learned of the result of the Jazz game. 

As Pope will tell you, it’s not easy picking yourself off the floor after a brutal one-point loss like his team experienced Thursday at home against No. 8 Gonzaga — the perennial West Coast Conference champions and national powerhouse — and playing a game two nights later, even if it’s against an opponent, Pepperdine, that’s winless and sitting in last place in West Coast Conference play. 

“Thursday night was super emotional,” Pope said. “Your mind flips back a thousand times in the last 48 hours to what could have been and what should have been and what you missed. These guys were super disciplined about not allowing their minds to stay there.”

Saturday night, the Cougars demonstrated some resilience, holding off Pepperdine 91-81 in front of a crowd of 14,434 at the Marriott Center. 

“After a game like that against Gonzaga that’s super emotional, you take a drink from the fountain of youth and you’re like, ‘Hey, it’s over,’” said guard Spencer Johnson, who scored 13 points and had four steals. “We’re going to stay up all night, or whatever it takes, to get this scout done and we’re going to move on.”

Added Pope: “Even in the late stages of the game (Saturday) we were sitting on the bench and it was a real emotional battle just to get their emotions back. I thought they did a tremendous job fighting it and earned a win.”

BYU (14-7, 4-2) led by as many as 13 points in the first half only to watch the Waves whittle that deficit to as little as two a couple of times in the second half. 

But the Cougars never relinquished the lead and they found a way to finish. 

Six players scored in double figures for BYU, which got some strong performances from Richie Saunders (13 points on 5 of 6 shooting) and Atiki Ally Atiki (11 points, five rebounds) off the bench. 

“I was super proud of (Saunders) tonight with his defensive assignments. He was very, very defensively sound, which is hard for young guys, especially guarding this backcourt was super challenging,” Pope said.

“That allowed him to stay on the floor. He’s trying to emulate Spence, where Spence ends up being on the floor all game because he’s defensively assignment-sound … He was pretty good and his effort was great. His energy was tremendous.”

Saunders buried a crucial 3-pointer with 9:30 left in the game to give the Cougars a 68-58 lead. 

That was followed by an 8-0 run by Pepperdine to make it 68-66.

Johnson nailed a 3-pointer, then Fousseyni Traore — who ended up with a team-high 19 points, on 8 of 12 shooting, and nine rebounds — scored a bucket to provide BYU with some breathing room. 

Later, a Saunders putback lifted the Cougars to a 77-68 advantage with 5:40 left.

That’s how this game went for most of the second half — BYU trying to maintain its double-digit lead while the scrappy Waves, who shot 63% in the second half, kept hitting big shots.

However, BYU allowed Pepperdine just two field goals over the final five minutes of the game. 

The Cougars dominated on the boards, outrebounding the Waves 41-23, including 13 offensive rebounds — including four by Gideon George. 

“I was super grateful that we got to work on the glass again. We’ve been a little bit absent from the glass the last three games and it was worrisome for us,” Pope said.

“I was really pleased with the guys’ effort on the glass. We have a 13-offensive rebound goal every night. We had a three-game stretch where we didn’t come close. That was really important to us.”

BYU guard Dallin Hall scored 13 points and dished out a team-high seven assists, while Jaxson Robinson recorded 12 points and four assists. 

The Cougars were aggressive offensively, going to the free throw line a season-high 32 times. They hit 25 of their free throws, including 5 of 6 over the final three minutes. 

What was the key to closing this game out?

“My biggest concern was sitting in the huddle of the last media timeout. Our guys were blank-faced. They were emotionally done,” Pope said. “This Gonzaga (game) slipped away because we got so distracted. Gonzaga’s a great team; I’m not taking anything away from them. We wish we could have been present. There were so many moments, crazy stuff in that game …

“We did a much better job tonight about trying to stay present and not thinking about all the other stuff,” Pope added. “That’s a journey for an athlete. It’s one of the gifts of great athletes — they can stay present in the moment and what their job is right now.”

Pepperdine (7-12, 0-5) was led by guard Houston Mallette, who poured in 19 points. Maxwell Lewis added 18, Jan Zidek had 14, Mike Mitchell contributed 12 and Jevon Porter notched 11. 

Pepperdine threw everything it had at BYU, but the Cougars responded. 

Pope thanked all of the fans that showed up Saturday on the heels of Thursday’s tough loss.

“Can I tell you what helps? What’s magic? You walk back into this gym and there’s almost 15,000 people in here,” he said.

“That just doesn’t happen. We drop a game on Thursday and you still walk into this gym and it feels great. We’re really blessed. This Cougar Nation, they’re giving us support and it makes all the difference. We could have walked into this gym and it could have felt a little dead and it didn’t at all. That’s the final piece of the recovery. So grateful to all Cougar fans.”

BYU visits Santa Clara Saturday.

TIP-INS: BYU outscored Pepperdine in second-chance points 17-4 … George was 6 of 6 from the free throw line … The Cougars had 18 assists on 29 made field goals … BYU shot 57% in the second half.