SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Sporting sunglasses and his signature hairstyle, former Santa Clara star Jalen Williams sat courtside at the Leavey Center Thursday night to watch the Broncos take on BYU. 

Williams, a first-round NBA draft pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder last June, was in town because his new team faces the Sacramento Kings Friday — so the school honored Williams during the first half.

Last season here, Williams scored 26 points, including the game-winner, just before the final buzzer in a dramatic, one-point victory over the Cougars.  

While Williams didn’t play Thursday, Santa Clara had plenty of offensive firepower against BYU. 

The Broncos’ Big Three — forward Keshawn Justice, guard Carlos Stewart and guard Brandin Podziemski — imposed their will, particularly late in the second half, as Santa Clara defeated the Cougars 83-76. 

Justice poured in a game-high 23 points (including four 3-pointers), Stewart chipped in 21 and Podziemski added 17. They combined to hit 21 of 39 shots from the floor.

“They made some hard shots, some tough shots,” BYU coach Pope said. “It was hard for us to guard No. 22 (Podziemski); it was really hard for us to guard No. 14 (Justice) and it was hard to guard No. 1 (Stewart). Some of it was action stuff but some of it was isolation stuff … We didn’t adjust great schematically to them. We couldn’t find answers for those guys.”

Why were those three Broncos so unstoppable? 

“Those three guys can just size you up, one-on-one … This Podziemski is a super-talented scorer. Stewart is really good,” Pope said. “And we know how dangerous Justice is and all three of those guys really hurt us tonight. It’s disappointing. We’ve been really solid there but we just couldn’t find an answer.”

The game was tied at 55-all with 6:36 remaining when Stewart scored on a traditional 3-point play. Later, he knocked down a jumper. Then Justice hit a pair of free throws, followed by another Stewart jumper, followed by a Podziemski layup.

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Suddenly, with 4:06 left, Santa Clara had seized a 68-60 advantage.

Dallin Hall drilled a 3-pointer with 2:57 remaining to cut the deficit to 70-64. But Justice and Stewart struck again — while 6-10 Parker Braun added a couple of rim-rattling dunks to seal the victory. 

“We just couldn’t get stops. Their guards got off,” said BYU guard Rudi Williams, who came off the bench to score a team-high 24 points on 8 of 16 shooting from the floor in 24 minutes of play. “We just couldn’t stop them. They stopped us more than we stopped them.”

Added Williams: “I was surprised how physical they were. They set heavy screens. They played physical defense. They made our catches tough. I was surprised by their physicality.”

Late in the game, the Cougars experienced a prolonged field goal drought. BYU scored just five shots from the floor over the game’s final six minutes. 

Williams was one of three Cougars to score in double figures, along with Spencer Johnson (17) and Hall (13). Johnson buried 4 of 5 3-pointers. 

“I’ve been trying my best to be aggressive,” Williams said of his play. “I’ve kind of been having rough shooting nights lately. I’ve been trying to get out of that hole.”

Pope said his staff challenged Williams this week to be more aggressive. Against Santa Clara, Williams had four assists and only two turnovers. 

“He was really disappointed with his Pepperdine performance. He had three early turnovers and they were passive turnovers. When you’re playing on your heels, you’re going to be really exposed to making mistakes,” he said. “We’ve talked about that all week … just talking about the answer to mistakes is not to become more passive and retreat. The answer is to be more physical and smart. He only got himself in deep trouble one time. For the most part, he was physical, downhill, super-smart and then making a play off two feet, not jumping off two feet. His aggressiveness is going to reduce his turnovers. It’s just the way the game works. I thought he was good and had a nice, aggressive feel tonight. It’s a learning process.”

It was a nightmarish start for BYU at the Leavey Center.

Over the first eight minutes, the Cougars gave away 10 turnovers and they trailed the Broncos 12-2. 

“Coach told us in the first half they punched us in the mouth. We had to come back and bring the fight to them, honestly,” Williams said. “I think we got three stops in a row, which led a run in the first minute of the second half.”

What caused all of the early-game miscues? 

“Their physicality,” Williams said. “We were rattled by that a little bit, which led to the turnovers.”

Pope agreed.

“It was just a response to physicality. Early on in the game, we were coughing up the ball,” he said. “All of it is because there are so many lessons you have to learn. This group is learning about the physicality of this game, on the road in this league is a challenge.”

Fortunately for BYU, Johnson hit a couple of 3-pointers to keep it in the game. But Santa Clara pushed its lead to as many as 13 midway through the first half. 

Cougar guard Trey Stewart, who hadn’t played since the Pacific game on Dec. 29, entered the game late in the first half and had an immediate impact with a steal, a layup and an assist.

That assist led to a 3-pointer by Hall to pull the Cougars to within 31-26 with one minute left in the first half. 

However, Podziemski drilled a 3 of his own just before the buzzer to give the Broncos a 34-26 halftime lead. 

BYU had 15 turnovers at the break (Santa Clara scored 17 points off those turnovers) and was shooting just 38.5% from the floor. 

“Their size and physicality was an issue,” Pope said. “The size of their guards, too. They are big, thick, strong guards … (Podziemski) didn’t hurt us as much inside but he made huge shots, at the end of the half a fading 3, and timely shots in the last seven minutes of the game.”

The Cougars had just four turnovers over the final 20 minutes. 

“We did a much better job protecting the ball in the second half,” Pope said. “We only had four turnovers in the second half. We had to do better. The guys were better that way.”

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BYU (14-8, 4-3) opened the second half with a 9-0 run to take its first lead of the game, 35-34, after a layup by Hall with 18:26 remaining. But the Cougars never led by more than four points. 

Santa Clara (16-5, 4-2) always had an answer for BYU. The Cougars did not have an answer for the Broncos. They just couldn’t stop Santa Clara’s Big Three. 

“Our defense has a little bit of holes in it sometimes,” Williams said. “We’ve got to do better; taking the responsibility to take a guy out of a play. That probably starts with me. We’ve got to do a little better knowing the scout, and knowing who’s who and guarding our guys.”

BYU visits San Francisco Saturday. 

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