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Slow start dooms BYU in 74-70 loss to Boise State

BYU’s Hunter Erickson defends Boise State’s Emmanuel Akot at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah on Dec. 9, 2020.
Courtesy BYU Photo

For most of the first half Wednesday night against the Boise State Broncos, BYU’s offense looked like one of those ugly Christmas sweaters. The Cougars fell behind 14-0 and didn’t score for the first 8 ½ minutes of the game.

“They came out with fire and passion and we could not respond,” BYU coach Mark Pope said of the Broncos. “It was super frustrating for us. We were really stagnant. We had no pace, no flow.”

In the second half, BYU battled back, looking for a Christmas miracle at the Marriott Center.

The Cougars nearly got one — tying the game a couple of times, including at 70-70 with 36 seconds remaining on a drive by Alex Barcello — but a 3-pointer at the top of the key with 13 seconds remaining by Barcello’s former Arizona teammate and Wasatch Academy product Emmanuel Akot lifted Boise State to a 74-70 victory.

Barcello had a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer with three seconds left, but it missed the mark.

“Alex had an open look,” Pope said. “We’ll take that every time.”

“My teammates all trusted me … Not every shot falls,” Barcello said. “Sadly, it didn’t fall and we lost the game. But we’re going to bounce back. I’m probably not going to sleep tonight.”

The Cougars (5-2) never led in a game in which a 10-point deficit seemed like a 20-point hole.

Barcello finished with a team-high 22 points and Matt Haarms added a season-high 18. Guard Spencer Johnson and forward Richard Harward came off the bench to score 10 and eight points, respectively, and helped fuel BYU’s rally.

But Boise State (3-1) managed to hold off the Cougars. The Broncos were led by Rayj Dennis (19 points), Abu Kigab (14), Akot (13) and Derrick Alston (12). Kigab had 12 of his points in the second half.

“We just weren’t together defensively in the second half,” Pope said.

On Tuesday, Pope called last year’s performance against Boise State “an offensive debacle” in overtime setback to the Broncos. That would also describe what was on display in the first half at the Marriott Center as the Cougars simply fell into too big of a hole.

Not only was it somewhat reminiscent of what happened to BYU last year against Boise State, but it was somewhat reminiscent of what happened in last week’s 26-point loss to USC as the Cougars struggled with the Broncos’ athleticism.

“Their length bothered us,” Pope said.

As poorly as the Cougars played in the first half, they clawed their way back into the game with a better second-half performance. BYU shot 61% from the field and hit 6 of 11 from 3-point range.

“A huge step forward for us was, we had the same frustration against USC,” Pope said. “The difference was in this game, we came out in the second half and stayed dialed in, locked in emotionally to the game, if not executing sufficiently.”

In the first half, Boise State bottled up Barcello, BYU’s leading scorer. Every time the senior guard touched the ball, the Broncos swarmed all over him.

“They were keying on Alex, which they should. That’s what every team is going to do,” Pope said. “The more anxious we got, the more stuck on one side we got, we broke every principle that we work for ... It’s a little bit of a domino effect. It’s a real immature approach to the game. I’ve done a poor job offensively of gaining our guys’ faith in how we approach this game. We’ll fix it.”

Barcello took only one shot in the first half. That came on a 3-pointer that he buried with nine seconds left in the period. He had scored his first points of the night on a pair of free throws with 44.8 seconds remaining in the first half.

The first half was an eyesore performance for BYU, particularly the first 12 minutes. The Cougars had six turnovers over the first eight minutes and missed their first eight shots from the floor as Boise State seized a 14-0 lead.

BYU was held scoreless until the 11:21 mark of the first half on a layup by Haarms to cut the deficit to 14-2.

Later, the Cougars started to find some life with an 8-2 run to make it 21-13 for BSU. BYU finished the half on an 8-4 run and the Cougars went into the locker room at intermission trailing 30-21.

“That slow start could largely be attributed to us not listening to coach,” Haarms said. “Coach preaches an offense that has worked every time we do what he says and we play the way we know how to play … It’s always going to be about ball movement. That is the key for this team.”

At the half, BYU had made just 7 of 21 shots from the field and 1 of 10 from 3-point range. The Cougars had 11 turnovers, with the Broncos scoring 10 points off of them.

Boise State didn’t shoot much better in the first half — 38%. The Broncos led by as many as 14 (30-16) during the first 20 minutes of the game.

BYU struggled again from the free throw line, making just 11 of 18, leaving valuable scoring opportunities at the charity stripe.

BYU hosts Utah on Saturday (4 p.m. MST, BYUtv).