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BYU holds on for 87-79 victory over Weber State to record its fifth in-state victory of season

It was the kind of in-state battle that should help prepare the Cougars for what’s coming next — West Coast Conference action, which tips off next week. 

Brigham Young Cougars guard Brandon Averette (4) goes up for a layup as BYU and Weber State play an NCAA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. BYU won 87-79.
Brigham Young Cougars guard Brandon Averette (4) goes up for a layup as BYU and Weber State play an NCAA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. BYU won 87-79.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

All BYU coach Mark Pope really wanted for Christmas was a win against Weber State.

It wasn’t easy, but the Cougars gave Pope just that Wednesday night at Vivint Arena — wrapping up a hard-fought 87-79 victory over the Wildcats in BYU’s final non-conference game.

It was the kind of in-state battle that should help prepare the Cougars for what’s coming next — West Coast Conference action, which tips off next week.

“In-state games are always tough like that. We’re probably the most prominent team in the state currently. They really wanted to beat us,” said senior Matt Haarms, who scored a team-high 15 points, including 11 in the second half. “We knew they weren’t going to quit so they kept coming at us. We were able to hold them off down the stretch.”

BYU was nursing a narrow 81-76 lead with 30 seconds remaining when freshman Caleb Lohner grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to give the Cougars a little bit of breathing room at 83-76.

“It was a huge offensive rebound and putback,” said Pope.

Though when it was happening, Pope was shouting instructions from the sideline to Lohner, who finished with 11 points and a game-high eight rebounds.

“He grabbed it and I was like, ‘Pass it back out! Pass it back out!” Pope said. “Caleb’s like, ‘C’mon coach, I’m going to finish this.’”

Lohner was happy to help his team close out the game.

“These in-state games are tough. It got scary for a second,” he said. “Weber State kept hitting big shots. I’m just glad we were able to fight through that frustration and finish it out.”

The Cougars (9-2) earned their fourth consecutive win and improved to 5-0 against in-state teams, with wins over Westminster, Utah Valley University, Utah State, Utah and Weber State. BYU has also won 16 in a row in the home of the Utah Jazz.

The Cougars enjoyed balanced scoring with five players in double figures. Brandon Averette had 13, Alex Barcello added 12 while Richard Harward contributed 11.

Zahir Porter and Seikou Sisoho Jawara each scored a game-high 16 points for Weber State (3-3). Dontay Bassett added 13 and Isiah Brown chipped in 12 for the Wildcats.

BYU shot only 6 of 22 from 3-point range while the Wildcats hit 10 of 29, including four by Porter.

For the first time this season, the Cougars were able to play in front a contingent of BYU faithful as 1,500 fans were allowed to attend Wednesday’s game. Most were cheering for the Cougars.

“When we came out for warmups, we saw everyone and it put a smile on our faces,” Barcello said. “It was so nice having our fans here. I think we have the best fans in the country. It was such a good feeling.”

“It was so fun. I’m so sick of playing in front of nobody. No one wants that,” Lohner said. “The energy in the gym today was super fun. We all loved it. Fans cheering and booing and clapping, that’s part of the game of basketball. This was a really cool experience coming here and I’m grateful we got to do that.”

Lohner has struggled to find his shot to this point of the season but he knows his team is counting on him to be a beast on the boards.

“Right now, one of my key roles is getting rebounds. And if that’s something that I can do that helps us win games, then I’m going to do it,” he said. “It’s really fun going to the glass and getting rebounds. It brings some juice to the team and me and gets me going. It’s been fun.”

Pope said knowing that Lohner is going to be a reliable rebounder makes a big difference for his team.

“The confidence that it gives us to know that he’s not only going do great work on the defensive glass but he’s going to grab us some extra possessions, that’s actually worth more than just the face value of the numbers,” Pope explained. “He’s done a great job. There are some parts of his game that he’s super frustrated with right now. For a less mature player, that might distract him from doing the things that he’s great at. He has not been distracted by the things that aren’t going well and keep doing the things that are earning him minutes and helping us win. It’s a real tribute to him.”

The Cougars will need more strong efforts on the glass from Lohner as they head into conference play.

And the win over Weber State was a good test before WCC action starts.

“It really prepared us. Every game has prepared us … We have a lot of young guys and they’ve become more mature as each game goes on,” Barcello said. “It might not have been as big as a rivalry as Utah or Utah State, but it was going to be a battle from start to finish and I think we handled it really well.”

BYU opens West Coast Conference play Dec. 31 at Pepperdine.