LAS VEGAS — Facing a Loyola Marymount team that upset both nationally ranked Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s this season, and was coming off a full week without playing any games, BYU knew the importance of starting strong in Saturday’s West Coast Conference quarterfinal matchup at Orleans Arena.
Twenty-four hours earlier, the Cougars had watched Portland race to a 14-point first-half lead against them after the Pilots had beaten San Diego Thursday night in the first round.
“Coach emphasized to bring a lot of fight. The first time we played them down in L.A., they kind of punked us. In the second game, when they came to Provo, we brought the fight. We tried to do that again.” — BYU guard Rudi Williams
Before the game, guard Spencer Johnson was chatting with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe about that very subject.
“We were talking about how Portland had played a game and they got off to a really fast start against us,” Johnson said. “It took us a second to break off those cobwebs. We were ready to go. We knew if we could get a lead on them, they’d be in trouble. It was huge for us to take control of it and never look back.”
Against LMU, the Cougars didn’t wait until the second half to flex their muscles. BYU picked up where it had left off in the second half against Portland — in a game that saw it overcome a 13-point halftime deficit and explode for 52 second-half points.
Saturday, the No. 5 seeded Cougars jumped out to an 11-point first-half advantage and held off the Lions 73-63.
BYU (19-14) led for all but 15 seconds of the game.
“Coach emphasized to bring a lot of fight,” said Rudi Williams, who scored a team-high 23 points. “The first time we played them down in L.A., they kind of punked us. In the second game, when they came to Provo, we brought the fight. We tried to do that again.”
With the win, the Cougars advanced to Monday’s semifinal matchup against No. 1 seed Saint Mary’s.
Not that LMU (19-12) didn’t put up a furious fight. The Lions narrowed the gap to three points midway through the second half, but the Cougars always had an answer to LMU’s runs.
“I want to give BYU a lot of credit. They were fantastic tonight,” said Lions coach Stan Johnson. “Every time we felt like we were getting back in the game, and maybe getting over the hump, they made some tremendous plays. They were a better team than we were tonight.”
The Cougars shot 52% for the game, including 68.4% (13 of 19) in the first half. They held LMU to 40% shooting.
Guard Cam Shelton almost single-handedly kept the Lions in the game, scoring 27 points.
But BYU got balanced scoring from Williams (including 11 of 12 from the free-throw line), Spencer Johnson (14 points) and Jaxson Robinson (13 points, eight rebounds).
Guard Dallin Hall, making his second straight appearance off the bench after starting almost every WCC game, scored nine points on 3 of 4 3-pointers. His step-back 3 early lifted BYU to a 17-6 lead.
Forward Fousseyni Traore scored just seven points in 16 minutes of play. He spent a lot of time on the bench in foul trouble as LMU threw a wall of defenders at him every time he touched the ball.
But Atiki Ally Atiki filled in admirably for Traore, scoring two points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking three shots in 24 minutes of action.
“During the last media timeout, I felt like Atiki’s eyes were rolling behind his head, he was so tired. He had a hard job tonight,” Pope said. “He was iso-guarding Cam Shelton, one of the most explosive guards in our league. He did an incredible job, playing the most minutes he’s played so far. I thought he was outstanding.
“He’s an example of a guy that’s getting to the end of his sophomore year. He’s paid his dues for a long time. He’s coming every day with an incredible attitude, a ton of joy and a great work ethic. All that work was for a night like tonight, where he had to step up. He had a huge impact on the game. I thought he was fantastic.”
Loyola Marymount out-rebounded BYU 32-28 but the Cougars controlled the game.
“Rudi had a tremendous game tonight. He did a great job. I mean, he shot 12 free throws. That was a huge difference,” Stan Johnson said. “If you would have told me that we would have 15 offensive rebounds and 60 shots, to their 42, I would have told you that we were going to win. We did not close out the first half the right way. They went on a 12-1 run. That was the game.”
BYU and LMU split their regular-season meetings. The Lions knew the key to victory was being physical.
“In the first game, the reason we were able to beat them was because we out-physicaled them. They weren’t able to get on the glass like they like to,” Shelton said. “In the second game, they came out and were the more physical team. This game, we knew that. We wanted to follow the recipe from the first game and be more physical.
“… But it kind of got away from us in a three-minute stretch in the first half. It was 26-25, and they went into the half up 11. We did a good job in the second half and most of the first half but during that three-minute stretch, it got away from us.”
Meanwhile, the Cougars knocked down several timely 3-pointers. The Cougars went 8 of 17 from 3-point range, and each of them was crucial.
“In the second half, we got it to three,” Stan Johnson said. “Then we gave up an offensive rebound, kick-out 3. That was a dagger.”
“They were timely 3s and they were pretty loud. We hit them at the right time,” Williams said. “I can recall one — we were in a little bit of a scoring drought in the second half and I drove in the paint and I was probably going to shoot a tougher shot. Then I saw Spencer at the last second and he stuck that 3. That got us going a little bit.”
Johnson said he and his teammates are relying heavily on Williams’ leadership and savvy play.
“Veteran guys make smart, decisive, game-winning plays. Rudi’s played college basketball for years and that guy knows how to play, he knows how to lead,” he said. “It’s huge for our team with so many young guys. You’ve gotta have leaders for your team. Rudi does a great job on the floor and off the floor. We’re fortunate to have him.”
And now the Cougars’ season extends to the WCC semifinals — and another shot at Saint Mary’s.
TIP-INS: Williams reached the 2,000-point milestone for his collegiate career in the first half … The Cougars shot 68.4% in the first half, their second-highest field goal percentage in the first half this season … They shot 68.8% against Westminster … BYU outscored LMU in fast-break points 14-6.