BYU 87, San Francisco 61
For BYU, there was a seemingly endless supply of motivation going into its final regular-season game — and its final regular-season game ever as members of the West Coast Conference.
For starters, it was Senior Night, and seniors Rudi Williams and Gideon George were honored before tipoff.
The Cougars also knew that a victory over San Francisco would earn them the fifth seed in next week’s WCC tournament at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, assuring them of a second-round game, as opposed to the securing the dreaded seventh seed, which plays in the first round Thursday.
And BYU wanted to avenge a poor showing last month in a loss at War Memorial Gym against USF.
From the outset Saturday, the Cougars played like a team that wasn’t going to accept any outcome but a win.
In the end, BYU snapped its four-game losing streak, and ended the Dons’ three-game winning streak, with a dominating 87-61 triumph Saturday at the Marriott Center.
“It was a big win,” Williams said. “It’s good to get out of this little funk that we were in.”
Yes, the Cougars were happy to end the regular season on a strong note, recording their first victory in three weeks.
“We knew going into this game that we could either earn a No. 5 seed or end up with a No. 7 seed,” said coach Mark Pope. “I was super proud of the guys for ringing the bell. This has not been an easy season for us. It’s been super challenging. When you go through a season like this, it tests your character.”
Fittingly, on Senior Night, the seniors helped lead the way for BYU. Williams, who made his first start since early December, scored a team-high 21 points, which included hitting 15 of 16 from the free throw line. Williams also added seven assists and only one turnover.
George hit 5 of 9 shots from the floor, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range, and scored 12 points and pulled down six rebounds.
“These two guys are incredible examples of great character,” Pope said of the two seniors. “I think we still have a ton of basketball to play. But I couldn’t be more proud of these guys because it’s hard. As much as we talk about not carrying around the baggage of what happened last week or the week before or the week before that. There are very few people that can do that. These guys managed to come out with some joy and some fire.”
With 31.4 seconds remaining in the game, Pope subbed Williams and George out of the game to a standing ovation from the crowd of 15,990 at the Marriott Center.
“It hit home for me, honestly,” Williams said about the curtain call. “I can just imagine (George) because he built his blocks here for three years. Just my couple of months in Provo, it meant a lot to me because it hasn’t been easy with the team and myself personally. Knowing that this Marriott Center never got empty and every night they came to support us, win or lose, that meant the world to me and I’m super grateful for that.”
As if Williams didn’t have enough going on, he also eclipsed the career 1,000-point plateau Saturday.
“I didn’t know how close I was. It was kind of a surprise to me,” he said of the milestone. “But I’m blessed for that. It’s been a rough journey the past three years of my Division career so I’m just grateful for that.”
George also appreciated the tribute the fans paid to him at the end of the game.
“It’s the best. I’m so grateful for being here and coming here three years ago,” he said. “Just in the love from the fans and the way people embraced us and loved us. That really speaks volumes. I’m so proud of everyone for sticking with us and cheering us on. I’m really glad for that.”
The Cougars enjoyed other impressive performances Saturday.
Fousseyni Traore recorded a double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds to go along with five assists. Jaxson Robinson went 5 of 6 from the floor, including 2 of 3 from 3-point territory, to end up with 12 points. Spencer Johnson had nine points and collected six rebounds.
As a team, BYU controlled the boards, out-rebounding USF 42-22, including 13 offensive rebounds and out-scoring the Dons 15-1 in second-chance points.
The Cougars shot 52% overall from the floor and 9 of 20 from 3-point territory. BYU recorded 22 assists on 30 made baskets.
Defensively, BYU held a USF team that scored 92 points in a Thursday win over Portland to just 61 points. The Dons shot 36% from the field and were just 5 of 25 from behind the arc.
Guard Khalil Shabazz, a noted Cougar killer for years, scored 21 points on 4 of 15 shooting from the field, and just 3 of 10 from 3.
Tyrell Roberts, who poured in a career-high 30 points against BYU in San Francisco, was held to six points on 0 of 6 shooting from 3-point range. Roberts tossed up a couple of airballs, which the crowd reminded him about every time he touched the ball.
Johnson spent much of his time on the floor defending, and slowing down, Roberts.
Williams credited assistant coach Kahil Fennell for getting the Cougars, who had a bye Thursday, ready for the Dons.
“All week we went back and watched film of the last trip when we went up there,” he said. “The thing that we really noticed was, they beat us on all of the 50-50 balls, they were tougher than us, they got us on the floor and we didn’t.”
Williams continued, “So shout out to coach Fennell. It was his scout and he made sure that we made that not happen again. We were tougher than them; we got more offensive rebounds than them and we won the fight.”
George set the tone early with back-to-back 3-pointers to lift BYU to a 10-5 advantage. Even Traore got into the act, attempting, and hitting, his first 3-pointer of the season in the first half.
The Cougars’ defense was dialed in and BYU ended the half on a 10-2 run, which featured a pair of 3-pointers by Robinson.
At intermission, BYU led 40-27. The Cougars knocked down 5 of 10 3s while the Dons made just 2 of 10 3s over the first 20 minutes of action.
Then BYU scored the first 10 points of the second half to seize a 23-point lead before cruising to victory.
“There are so many good things that we did,” Pope said. “We were also fortunate that San Francisco had two games this week. They played Thursday and had a one-game prep. But these guys did an incredible job taking advantage of that also.”
With the win, the Cougars (17-14, 7-9) finished in a three-way tie for fifth-place with the Dons (18-13, 7-9) and Pacific (14-17, 7-9).
By virtue of the tie-breaker formula, BYU earned the No. 5 seed for the WCC tournament.
The Cougars will play Friday night in Las Vegas against the winner of the first-round matchup between No. 8 Portland and No. 9 San Diego.