While BYU was going toe to toe with No. 22 Saint Mary’s on Saturday in just about every statistical category, including the final score, a significant sidenote developed that is worthy of some delayed attention.

There is no question the transfer portal is changing college sports and it is, and will continue to be, a major resource for BYU as it prepares to join the Big 12 next season. But on Saturday, against arguably the best team in the West Coast Conference and on BYU’s 2022-23 schedule, the Cougars went “Old School” and nearly aced the test.

BYU coach Mark Pope had to get creative. Except for limited minutes and minor production from Coastal Carolina transfer Rudi Williams, Pope went without any of his portal players against the Gaels — and hardly missed them.

Granted, it wasn’t by choice, as Detroit Mercy transfer Noah Waterman and Arkansas transfer Jaxson Robinson joined 6-foot-10 sophomore Atiki Ally Atiki on the bench serving one-game suspensions for violating an unspecified team rule.

Any of those three could have affected the 57-56 outcome, but in their absence, and with heavy minutes from freshmen and newly returned missionaries Dallin Hall and Richie Saunders, Pope also worked in seldom-used junior Tredyn Christensen and sophomore Trey Stewart.

Together, with regular starters Fousseyni Traore (sophomore), Gideon George (senior), and Spencer Johnson (junior), the Cougars went to war against one of the hottest teams in the country and beat them on the glass (33-25), in the paint (30-26) and in points off turnovers (10-8).

They did this, in perhaps Pope’s best coaching performance in some time, against a Saint Mary’s team that took the floor with a full and healthy roster, loaded with big bodies down low, sharp shooters outside — and riding a nine-game winning streak.

So how did BYU take the Gaels to the limit? What kept them from getting blown out, especially after they were held to just eight points through the first 11 ½ minutes of the game?

Effort.

The Cougars fought hard with what they had and it was almost enough to beat the best team in the league. In fact, the only stat that showed any separation was at the free-throw line. In a game where few fouls were called, the Gaels made 7 of 8 free throws and BYU made 6 of 10, including a crucial miss by Hall with 10 seconds to play.

There is no question the more talented team on the floor won the game, even if it took a spectacular shot by Saint Mary’s Aidan Mahaney over Traore with .04 seconds left to pull it off. The Gaels showed their grit. They have no glaring weaknesses and should beat Gonzaga at home on Saturday.

For BYU, the head scratching continues, especially as Pope builds his future rosters. The Cougars just played the best team in the league without any impact from its portal players. Unlike Waterman and Robinson, Williams played but scored just two points in 14 minutes and was overshadowed by Hall’s career-high 23.

It has been tough for portal guys, not named 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms, to make an immediate and consistent impact. Moving forward, should BYU’s focus be on recruiting youth and coaching them up or gambling on portal products? Can there be a happy medium?

Pope has had successes and failures with both. As fans watch what is happening in the Big 12, it’s easy to suggest that the Cougars need to go find a bunch of taller, more athletic players, and fast.

Saturday’s game, however, showed the allure of recruiting a talented roster who puts it all on the line, plays together and earns a chance at beating the odds — something fans will show up to watch and something BYU failed to show with their full roster during back-to-back losses last week at Santa Clara and San Francisco.

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The Cougars’ bench will return to full strength Thursday against Loyola Marymount in Provo (7 p.m., CBSSN). There will be, and should be, pressure on Williams, Robinson and Waterman as portal performers to restore their value on the court.

When they are dialed in, BYU is a better team. Williams carried the Cougars past Utah with 26 points. But, when he scores two points against Saint Mary’s and the other two are suspended for violating a team rule, the entire process is justifiably questioned.

Shopping till you drop in the portal while searching for a quick fix may be the new way of doing things, but sometimes, like on Saturday, we are reminded that there is a reason “Old School” practices have been around for so long.

Recruiting, player development (coaching) and effort have been the blueprint for BYU’s success for a long time. It’s hard to imagine any other formula replacing it and producing better results. So far, with an exception or two, the only consistency the Cougars have found in the portal is a lack thereof.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com. 

St. Mary’s Gaels center Mitchell Saxen (11) and Brigham Young Cougars guard Dallin Hall (30) wrestle for the ball as BYU and St. Mary’s play at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. The Gaels won 57-56.
Saint Mary’s center Mitchell Saxen, left, and BYU guard Dallin Hall wrestle for the ball at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. The Gaels won 57-56. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News