‘We’re hurrying to get better’: Can BYU improve enough to be a factor at the WCC Tournament?
The Cougars are coming off back-to-back home wins. This week, they go back on the road to face Pepperdine, Gonzaga
A week ago, BYU sat in a sixth-place tie in the West Coast Conference standings and was in the throes of a three-game losing streak.
But after an 81-66 victory over Pacific Saturday, preceded by an 89-61 victory Thursday over Loyola Marymount, the Cougars (16-10, 6-5) are gradually climbing. They have a winning record in league play again.
With four weeks to go before the WCC Tournament tips off at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, BYU is in a third-place tie with LMU.
“I think we can feel ourselves getting better,” coach Mark Pope said after Saturday’s win. “We’re starting to function offensively better. We didn’t shoot it great (against Pacific) but we had great shots. We feel like we’re getting better. And we’ve got to hurry. We’re hurrying to get better. We have a chance to do it.”
Can the Cougars improve enough to be a factor in their final WCC Tournament in March?
BYU will need at least a few more victories before the end of the regular season to secure a top-4 seed and earn a bye into the quarterfinals. And that won’t be easy.
The Cougars have five games remaining in the regular season. As for this week, they are going back on the road with games against last-place Pepperdine on Thursday and perennial WCC champion Gonzaga on Saturday.
After that, BYU hosts Santa Clara (Feb. 16), visits Saint Mary’s (Feb. 18) and entertains San Francisco (Feb. 25). Of their five final opponents, the Cougars have beaten only one this season — Pepperdine, a 91-81 decision in Provo on Jan. 14.
The last time BYU played away from the Marriott Center, it wasn’t pretty. The Cougars were swept by Santa Clara and San Francisco on its Bay Area road swing.
The Waves ended their 11-game losing streak, and earned their first WCC win of the season, Saturday against Portland in a game that featured a crazy ending. Houston Mallette scored 25 points for Pepperdine and Jevon Porter nailed the game-winning basket as time expired in double overtime. The Waves beat the Pilots 94-93.
Meanwhile, the No. 12 Zags suffered their second WCC loss of the season Saturday with a 78-70 overtime loss at league-leader Saint Mary’s.
Gaels freshman guard Aidan Mahaney — who drilled a game-winner over BYU on Jan. 29 — poured in 18 points against Gonzaga.
No. 18 Saint Mary’s (21-4, 10-0) owns a two-game lead over the Zags (19-5, 8-2) in the WCC standings.
There have been a bunch of competitive games this season in the league, which could make things interesting in Las Vegas.
What does Rudi Williams want to see from his team between now and the first week of March at the tournament?
“I just want us to keep growing and keep getting better. Get some momentum heading into Vegas, finishing these last conference games,” he said. “I feel like when we get to Vegas, no one is going to want to play us in that first game because teams realize that we’re a dangerous team and we’ve definitely gotten better since the last time we saw them.”
In the two games last week — a 28-point victory over LMU and a 15-point win over Pacific — Williams started wearing a headband, thanks to an assist from freshman forward Braeden Moore.
“I probably decided a couple of days ago during practice,” Williams explained. “I saw Braeden in the locker room before practice. He had (the headband) on. I snatched it off his head, tried it on and I was like, ‘OK, I like this.’ I wore it in practice that day and I was like, ‘I’m just going to wear it in the game.’”
Meanwhile, forward Gideon George, who recorded a double-double against Pacific, was inspired by the presence in the Marriott Center Saturday of the family that took him in when he played at New Mexico Junior College before arriving at BYU.
George had one of his best games of the season with 12 points, 10 rebounds, two assists a steal and two blocks.
As a team, the Cougars had just nine turnovers against Pacific and seven turnovers against LMU.
It’s a sign that BYU is improving.
George wants to see more of the same during this final stretch of the season.
“We’re hungry,” he said, “to get better every day.”
BYU (16-10, 6-5) at Pepperdine (8-17, 1-10)
Thursday, 8 p.m. MST
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM