LAS VEGAS — Since BYU wrapped up the regular season with an 87-61 thumping of San Francisco Saturday, practices this week, going into the West Coast Conference tournament, have been spirited.

“We have no shortage of motivation to be better. I also think it was laced with some optimism, some hope and some pride.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

Coach Mark Pope described Monday’s practice as “pretty salty,” adding that “the guys were really competitive. … We’re excited and hungry and a little bit angry and that’s how you want to feel when you go into tournament play.”

The No. 5-seeded Cougars face either No. 8 Portland or No. 9 San Diego Friday (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv) in the second round at Orleans Arena.

The Pilots and Toreros meet Thursday night in the first round. 

Guard Spencer Johnson described practices this week as “a little chippy. It’s a lot of maybe pent-up frustration with the losses we’ve had. Dudes were getting after it. It’s been great to see this late in the season. We still care and we believe that we have something left to accomplish. Everyone’s competitive and sometimes it takes you to where you’re competing so hard that you get a little chippy and a little salty. That’s OK. So it’s been great. I like it.”

The WCC tournament is BYU’s one and only shot at getting into the NCAA Tournament. But, of course, capturing a WCC tournament title is something the Cougars have never done before.

“We have no shortage of motivation to be better. I also think it was laced with some optimism, some hope and some pride,” Pope said. “The fact that they had a great performance on Saturday and it was a special night for our seniors.”

BYU is hoping to build on the momentum from Saturday. Fousseyni Traore recorded 17 points and 14 rebounds against the Dons on a night that saw the Cougars snap their four-game losing streak.

“Guys are excited. We’ve just got to keep that momentum going. We’re going to play super physical and do whatever it takes to win. I feel like that’s what we’re going to do,” Traore said. “We’re at the point of the season where there’s no time for mistakes. We have to come and show up.

“Our goal is to win the whole thing,” he continued. “If we can do that, we can make it to the big tournament. We don’t have any other choice. We have to be ready, whatever it takes. Anybody can beat us and we can beat anybody. Everybody has to have that mindset. Let’s show up and go win.” 

For Johnson, the tournament provides a fresh start, a new season for a team that posted a losing record (7-9) in conference play in BYU’s final season in the league. 

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“This tournament’s always fun because whether you’re the No. 1 seed or the No. 8 seed, the job is the same,” he said. “You have to win the game that’s right there in front of you. Any team can beat anyone else on any given night. These tournaments are super fun. We’re looking forward to getting in there. We’re going to get after it. We’re super excited.”

For BYU to succeed, it will probably need to overcome one of its weaknesses — an inability to finish. The Cougars have lost plenty of close games this season. 

“That’s a big stride that we’re going to have to take and we’ll have to prove that in this tournament,” Johnson said.

“We had a lot of heartbreaking losses, especially the two home games against Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga. It’s super painful,” Traore said. “We just couldn’t finish. You have to stay locked in for 40 minutes. We have to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes and finish the game right. … We’ve just got to get the job done.”

Do the Cougars feel like there’s nothing to lose? 

“There’s nobody that hates losing games more than I do. That’s probably the most important thing. Hopefully, you always go into postseason feeling opportunity, not pressure. I think that’s the goal every single year and hopefully that never changes,” Pope said. “It’s super interesting about postseason play because everybody has the same job. 

Cougars on the air

WCC Tournament

No. 5 BYU (17-14)
vs. No. 9 San Diego (11-19)
or No. 8 Portland (13-18) 
Friday, 7 p.m. MST
Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM

“Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga tied as conference champions and they have the same job that we do in the sense that they’ve got to step on the court and win their first game. I hope we never feel overwhelming pressure. I hope what we feel is a little bit salty and a lot super hungry and a lot appreciating the opportunity because you only get to do it once a year,” he added. “And there’s a ton of work that goes into getting a chance to do it.

“This team, we’re going to have some things go our way but we believe that we can go win. That challenge sits in front of us on Friday night. I think we’re feeling super hungry and a little bit salty. This is an incredible opportunity to go win. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

BYU head coach Mark Pope exits the court after the Cougars lost to No. 8 Gonzaga , 75-74, at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.
BYU head coach Mark Pope exits the court after the Cougars lost to No. 8 Gonzaga , 75-74, at the Marriott Center in Provo. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News