For BYU basketball, perhaps one of the best things about leaving the West Coast Conference is this — it won’t have to deal with Saint Mary’s anymore.

The Gaels were a thorn in the Cougars’ side for the 12 seasons that BYU spent in the WCC. 

Playing there and having them heckling you and booing you, that’s what competitors (want). They rise to that occasion. We were able to this year and we’ll miss not having them.” — Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett on playing BYU at the Marriott Center

The Cougars posted a 7-5 record against Saint Mary’s at the Marriott Center and were just 2-10 on the Gaels’ home floor in Moraga, California. The Cougars actually had more success at The Kennel against Gonzaga (3-9) than they had at University Credit Union Pavilion, formerly McKeon Pavilion. 

Saint Mary’s said goodbye to BYU on Monday with a 76-69 victory in the WCC tournament semifinals at Orleans Arena. It marked its fourth straight win in the series.

With the Cougars joining the Big 12 next season, who knows if the two teams will ever play again?

Before Monday’s setback, BYU lost twice to nationally ranked Saint Mary’s but pushed the Gaels to the limit. The Cougars fell 57-56 in Provo on Aidan Mahaney’s game-winning jumper with 0.3 seconds left back on Jan. 28 then dropped a 71-65 decision on Feb. 18 in Moraga.

In the WCC tournament, the Gaels led by 26 points (56-30) early in the second half before the Cougars roared back to cut the deficit to three with 30 seconds remaining. 

Most had expected another classic showdown Monday between the two rivals, figuring that it might come down to the final possession. 

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Instead, for the first 25 minutes, it was reminiscent of BYU’s humiliating 81-50 loss to Saint Mary’s in the 2017 WCC tournament semifinals, the most lopsided game in the series. 

The following season in the WCC tournament semis, BYU avenged that loss, and snapped a five-game losing streak to the Gaels, with an 85-72 victory — which essentially knocked Saint Mary’s out of the NCAA Tournament. 

The BYU-Saint Mary’s rivalry will be remembered for a bunch of physical, intense games and fantastic finishes.

Matthew Dellavadova’s halfcourt buzzer-beater in 2013 at the Marriott Center will live forever in the lore of both programs. In the 2020 WCC tournament semifinals, Jordan Ford drilled a jumper with 1.4 seconds left to lift the Gaels past the Cougars 51-50. As it turned out, it was BYU’s final game of the season because the NCAA Tournament ended up being canceled due to COVID-19. 

Earlier that season, BYU’s TJ Haws hit a deep 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining to lift the Cougars to an 81-79 victory at the Marriott Center. Hours later, Haws’ wife delivered the couple’s first child. 

“We’ve had unbelievable games with them,” said BYU coach Mark Pope. “We’ve both traded last-second game-winners and we’ve both traded slugfest wins. It pains me that they’ve won the last four against us.”

Turns out, BYU’s inaugural WCC game and final WCC game were both against Saint Mary’s.

Monday’s game was a bookend to the Cougars’ first-ever WCC contest, on Dec. 29, 2011, when the Gaels beat BYU in Moraga 98-82. 

A lot happened between the two programs in between.

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett reflected on the Cougars’ time in the WCC after Monday’s win. 

“They have meant that you have a third program in this conference that can get an at-large (NCAA tournament) bid, has the resources to be a top-25 team and it has been a number of times,” Bennett said. “They have a tradition of being good, across the board, every sport. I think of it in terms of men’s basketball but, shoot, they’re good at football, they’re good in women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, everything.

“It’s a well-resourced program that has a great tradition. They take a lot of pride in their sports. We’ll miss that. Our league will miss that, no question. The rivalry’s been good,” he continued. “Going and playing there — (BYU) and Gonzaga are two of the toughest places in the country to play and certainly in the West. We’re losing one of those. We lose some significant things by losing them.”

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Pope said he’s relished these battles against Saint Mary’s — and its unique style of play. 

“I love these games. I think they’re really special games. Randy is one of the best coaches in the country,” he said. “Everybody talks about culture. But he really has a culture. You can take off all the jerseys and turn on a game at 1 o’clock in the morning and no commentators and no names and you would be able to tell his team versus any team in the country.” 

Over the years Saint Mary’s players have looked forward to facing the Cougars, particularly at the Marriott Center, Bennett said.

“They enjoy playing BYU. They enjoy that matchup. They know it’s going to be a tough competition. Playing there and having them heckling you and booing you, that’s what competitors (want). They rise to that occasion. We were able to this year and we’ll miss not having them.” 

Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett, left, watches the action from the bench during game against BYU in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament Monday, March 6, 2023, in Las Vegas. | David Becker, Associated Press