BYU’s final game at No. 17 Saint Mary’s was a lot like most of the Cougars’ other visits there.

Which is to say it wasn’t a good experience. In fact, it’s been a recurring nightmare. 

Speaking of recurring nightmares, it was also a lot like some of BYU’s other heartbreaking losses this season. 

Once again, the Cougars had a chance to upset a nationally ranked opponent but they couldn’t close the deal in a 71-65 setback to the Gaels. 

Yes, BYU found yet another way to lose a close game. Late-game struggles continue to haunt the Cougars.  

To win close games, it usually comes down to making the right play at the right time down the stretch, which is a skill that BYU’s players haven’t mastered. 

3 keys to BYU’s loss to Saint Mary’s

“Sometimes it’s head-scratching. We can make the right play; we just don’t do it consistently enough,” BYU coach Mark Pope told BYU Radio. “To go on the road and beat a top-25 team, that’s what you have to do.

“You have to make the right play and actually do it more than a 50-50 proposition. It’s gotta be a 70-30 or an 80-20 proposition. Right now, we’re at 50-50. That’s my responsibility. I need to teach these guys better.”

The Cougars (16-13, 6-8) battled back from a 13-point second-half deficit with an impressive rally. They pulled within one, 63-62, with under two minutes remaining.

Enter Aidan Mahaney. 

The sensational Saint Mary’s freshman struck again. Not only did Mahaney score the game-winner with 0.3 remaining in a one-point Saint Mary’s victory in Provo last month, but Saturday, he hit the biggest shot of the night, an open 3-pointer with 46 seconds left to lift the Gaels to a 68-62 advantage.

Pope explained that there was a defensive breakdown with Fousseyni Traore and Noah Waterman on a switch. 

“We had a miscommunication with Fouss and Noah. Schematically, that should be a switch,” he said. “Both guys ran away with the roll and we left Aidan open. It’s a credit to Saint Mary’s for being smart enough to exploit that switch. It’s an area of growth for us.”

Maybe it’s a good thing BYU is leaving the West Coast Conference after this season just so it won’t have to face Mahaney in the future. Mahaney finished with 16 points, including 14 in the second half. 

Meanwhile, during the Cougars’ 12 years in the WCC, they ended up with a miserable 2-10 record at University Credit Union Pavilion. 

BYU had more success (3-9) at The Kennel at Gonzaga than at Saint Mary’s over the years. 

As for this season, the Cougars lost four games to Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga by a combined 15 points. 

In what has been a downright bizarre campaign for BYU, it has played many of its best games against nationally ranked teams — with a bunch of close, frustrating losses to show for it. The one exception was the Cougars’ 83-80 upset of Creighton in December in Las Vegas. 

BYU will soon be returning to Las Vegas for the WCC tournament. But it will be a tough road at Orleans Arena because the Cougars, who are sitting in the bottom half of the league, could end up playing in the first round. 

While BYU suffered its fourth consecutive defeat, league-leader Saint Mary’s (23-5, 13-1) has now won 15 of its last 16 games.

The Cougars couldn’t slow down the Gaels’ Logan Johnson, who scored 27 points on 12 of 19 shooting from the field. Mitchell Saxen finished with 13 points to go along with seven rebounds. 

Yet despite trailing 59-46 with 7:41 remaining, BYU clawed back into the game after a long jumper in the corner by Waterman, followed by a pair of 3-pointers by Richie Saunders. Later, Dallin Hall buried a 3 at the four-minute mark to cut the deficit to 63-60. 

Traore, who finished with a team-high 16 points, scored with 1:59 remaining to narrow the gap to 63-62. 

But the Cougars could never get on top of the Gaels, thanks in part to Mahaney’s late heroics inside the final minute. 

BYU hit 9 of 19 3-pointers Saturday, compared to 4 of 13 for Saint Mary’s. Spencer Johnson (12 points, 7 rebounds), Rudi Williams (12 points), Waterman (11 points) and Saunders (6 points) hit two 3-pointers each. 

However, the Gaels outshot the Cougars from the field, 50% to 42%. 

BYU outscored Saint Mary’s in second-chance points, 16-9. But the Gaels had the advantage in the paint 40-26. 

The Cougars out-rebounded Saint Mary’s, 31-30, which was impressive, considering the Gaels entered the night No. 5 nationally in rebounding differential. 

“I was proud of the guys’ fight tonight. They won on the glass here at Saint Mary’s,” Pope said. “That’s a major accomplishment for this group, as young and undersized as they are.”

The Cougars are hoping to figure out how to win close games against the WCC’s elite. But they’re running out of time. 

BYU hosts San Francisco in the regular-season finale Saturday. 

TIP-INS: With the 62nd block of his career, Traore is tied with Kyle Collinsworth and Alan Pollard for the 20th most blocks in program history … BYU outscored Saint Mary’s in bench points, 30-4 … The Cougars had just eight assists on 24 made baskets … Saint Mary’s was 15 of 21 from the free throw line, compared to 8 of 10 for BYU.