LAS VEGAS — In late February, BYU was in the throes of a four-game losing streak, and going nowhere fast. 

But after capping the regular season with a dominating home victory on Senior Night against San Francisco, followed by West Coast Conference tournament wins over Portland and Loyola Marymount, don’t look now, but the Cougars are making a late-season run.

Cougars on the air

WCC Tournament

No. 5 BYU (19-14)
vs. No. 1 Saint Mary’s (25-6)
Monday, March 6, 7 p.m. MST
Orleans Arena in Las Vegas
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM

“You’ve gotta be good at the right time,” said guard Rudi Williams, who sported a white headband and scored a team-high 23 points in BYU’s 73-63 win over LMU Saturday night. “The team has to be its best in March, obviously. I feel like we’re trending in the right direction.”

Just like that, the mercurial Cougars (19-14) have advanced to the WCC tournament semifinals.

Standing in their way now, in their final WCC tournament, is longtime nemesis Saint Mary’s (25-6), which is ranked No. 17 in the country and boasts the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

No. 5 seed BYU, riding a three-game winning streak, faces the Gaels Monday (7 p.m., MST, ESPN) at Orleans Arena. The Cougars are hoping to go out of the WCC with a bang. In 12 years in the league, BYU has never won a WCC tournament title.

The winner of Monday’s BYU-Saint Mary’s semifinal game will play for a WCC tournament championship Tuesday, likely against No. 2 seed Gonzaga, which is ranked No. 10 nationally. 

The Zags take on No. 6 seed San Francisco later Monday night. USF upset No. 3 Santa Clara Saturday and advanced to the WCC semifinals.

Over the years, BYU has staged some memorable battles against Saint Mary’s. Monday marks the last WCC matchup between the two programs.

This season, BYU suffered a gut-wrenching 57-56 loss to the Gaels in Provo on Jan. 28, when freshman Aidan Mahaney hit a tough, turnaround jumper with 0.3 seconds left on the clock. 

On Feb. 18 in Moraga, Mahaney struck again, burying a 3-pointer with 46 seconds remaining. Saint Mary’s won 71-65.

The Cougars are eager to get one more crack at the Gaels.

“We’re really looking forward to it. People always say it’s hard to beat a team three times,” said guard Spencer Johnson, who finished with 14 points against LMU. “So definitely we’re going to take Sunday to prep and we’re going to come out and fight. We’re going to give them a game.”

Curiously, all of BYU’s WCC wins this season have been by double-figures. All of its WCC losses but one (to last-place Pepperdine) have been by single digits, including two one-point setbacks against

Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s at home, and a seven-point loss at Gonzaga and the six-point loss at Saint Mary’s. 

Against the league’s top two teams, BYU has been in all four games down the stretch. Can the Cougars defy the odds and figure out a way to beat the Gaels? 

As usual, BYU will try to speed up the deliberate pace Saint Mary’s loves to play. 

“You kind of shrink the floor with them and then make them make decisions they don’t want to make,” Williams said. “Keeping the ball out of guys’ hands, like Aidan Mahaney and Logan Johnson. I do remember when they came to Provo, we pressed them a little bit in that game. We were shorthanded but that gave them a little bit of trouble like that. I’m not the coach, but those are some things we’ve had success with.”

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LMU coach Stan Johnson, whose team upset Saint Mary’s at home in overtime on Feb. 9, knows both teams well. 

“I think it will be a great game. Both of those teams match up really well against each other. BYU’s played them extremely close in both games. Saint Mary’s won at the buzzer in Provo,” he said after his team lost to BYU Saturday night. “The game at Saint Mary’s was really close. I think it will be another really close game. Teams that can win the rebounding war, and get to the free throw line, is going to be the team that wins. I think whoever can control those aspects of the game, is probably the team that’s going to win the game.”

BYU’s three-game winning streak coincides with Williams being reinserted in the starting lineup.

Williams began the year as a starter until early December, when freshman point guard Dallin Hall became a starter.

But coach Mark Pope decided to make Williams a starter again on Senior Night against San Francisco. He scored 21 against the the Dons.

In the past three games, Williams has averaged 17 points, dished out 11 assists and has had just one turnover. He’s also knocked down 27 of 30 at the free throw line. 

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“He became not just a great player off the bench — a legitimate argument for Sixth Man of the Year in our conference — but also an unbelievably gracious and generous mentor to Dallin Hall, a freshman, who took on a starting role,” Pope said. 

The Cougars are relying heavily on Williams, and he’s responding in a big way.

“I have this deep, deep belief that seniors are magic. We talk about that all of the time,” Pope said. “They do things that are special, like Rudi has done the last couple of games and so many times this season.”

In Las Vegas, the Entertainment Capital of the World, BYU is hoping to conjure up some more late-season magic — and maybe some late-game magic — Monday in the WCC tournament semifinals against Saint Mary’s. 

Saint Mary’s guard Logan Johnson, left, shoots over BYU guard Trey Stewart (1) and forward Atiki Ally Atiki during game in Moraga, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023. BYU and Saint Mary’s will square off Monday night in Las Vegas in the WCC tournament semifinals. | Godofredo A. Vásquez, Associated Press
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