SANTA CLARA, California — The complexion of BYU’s entire season changed abruptly here a year ago.
Late last January, the Cougars arrived at the Leavey Center with a 17-4 overall record and a 5-1 mark in the West Coast Conference before taking on Santa Clara.
At the time, BYU was No. 24 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, sat one spot outside the Associated Press Top 25 and appeared to be a virtual lock to earn another NCAA Tournament berth.
With less than one minute remaining in the game that night, the Cougars held a 74-70 lead. But BYU collapsed down the stretch. The Broncos outscored the Cougars 7-2 over the final 42 seconds.
Santa Clara’s star guard, Jalen Williams, who finished with a game-high 26 points, scored a pair of coast-to-coast layups in the final 10 seconds, including the game-winner just before the final buzzer, as the Broncos earned a 77-76 victory.
When it was over, Santa Clara fans stormed the court, celebrating the win.
Williams became a first-round NBA draft pick (No. 12 overall) of the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer.
So as BYU returns to the Leavey Center Thursday (9 p.m., MST, CBS Sports Network) for the final time as members of the WCC, guard Spencer Johnson says he, and his team, are looking forward to some redemption.
Last season at Santa Clara, Johnson went to the free throw line with 8 seconds remaining, with the Cougars leading 76-75. Johnson missed the front end of the one-and-one, setting up Williams’ last-second heroics.
That’s why Johnson could relate to his teammate, guard Jaxson Robinson, who missed the back-end of a one-and-one free throw with 15.9 seconds left with the Cougars up 74-72 against No. 8 Gonzaga. With 9.5 seconds remaining, Julian Strawther buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the Zags’ 75-74 triumph.
“I know that every player goes through these ups and downs. Jaxson, when he missed that free throw against Gonzaga — that certainly didn’t lose the game. That’s not on him,” Johnson said. “But I remember I went up to him the next day and said, hey, ‘At Santa Clara last year, I missed these free throws and they came down and hit a game-winner. So I know what you’re going through and I know how it feels.’ It does leave a bad taste in your mouth and we’re ready to go back and take care of it down there.”
Robinson wasn’t playing for the Cougars last year, but he knows all about the defeat at Santa Clara.
“I saw the Santa Clara game last year. I know it was a really upsetting loss for BYU,” he said. “Going in there with a revenge-type mentality is definitely something that’s on our mind and just going out and getting the gritty win.”
It’s certainly a big road trip this weekend for the Cougars, who also visit San Francisco Saturday.
“It’s huge. Santa Clara is really, really good. They took Gonzaga to the wire. They’ve been playing really well. They’re super physical. San Francisco is a tough place to play,” Johnson said. “They have a lot of really good shooters and they’re big and physical as well. This is a big road trip. I think we’re ready. We’re feeling good. We’ve been practicing really good the past couple of days. We’re excited to get over there and get it going.”
BYU (4-2) sits in third place in the WCC, 1 ½ games behind Gonzaga (5-0) and Saint Mary’s (5-0). Santa Clara (3-2) is in a fourth-place tie with Pacific (3-2).
Cougars on the air
BYU (14-7, 4-2)
at Santa Clara (15-5, 3-2)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
In the latest NCAA NET rankings, the WCC has five teams in the top 100 — No. 9 Saint Mary’s, No. 10 Gonzaga, No. 80 Santa Clara, No. 88 BYU and No. 100 Loyola Marymount. San Francisco checks in at No. 129.
While Williams has moved on to the NBA, Santa Clara boasts other talented scorers.
Keshawn Justice leads the WCC, and is tied for No. 16 nationally, in 3-pointers made with 56. Justice poured in 26 points in the Broncos’ 92-81 win over Pacific Saturday.
Brandin Podziemski is one of the WCC’s top scorers, averaging 18.7 points per game. Podziemski did not play against the Tigers due to an injury. But BYU coach Mark Pope is expecting him to play Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Cougars are switching more on defense these days, something that they’ll need to do against both Santa Clara and USF.
“It’s nice when we have dudes that can guard multiple positions. They’ve really put it on our big guys to guard like a guard would,” Johnson said. “They’ve done a great job stepping up that way and moving their feet and guarding on the perimeter. Now it’s on us guards, when we switch, to be able to defend these big guys as well because Santa Clara is really, really big. San Francisco has some big guys. If we’re going to be switching like that, we’ve got to make sure we don’t get exposed by these rolling bigs.”
“I’m a versatile player who can switch 1-4 and 5 sometimes,” Robinson said. “It’s been great being able to have (Fousseyni Traore) and Atiki (Ally Atiki) guard on the perimeter and guard the guards. It helps the team a lot. We’ve just got to keep working on it and that’s what we’re doing in practice.”