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‘We have to get stops’: As season winds down, high-scoring BYU is defensive-minded

The Cougars, who are in second place in the West Coast Conference standings, want to clamp down defensively on Loyola Marymount Thursday at Gersten Pavilion. 

Brigham Young Cougars guard TJ Haws (30) attempts to save a ball from going out of bounds next to Pacific Tigers forward Jack Williams (32) during BYU’s 80-65 win at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018.
Jacob Wiegand, Deseret News

LOS ANGELES — While BYU boasts one of the most efficient and prolific offensive attacks in the nation, as the regular season winds down, it’s all about defense.

“The past few weeks, coach has been saying it every day — our defense is going to win us games,” said guard TJ Haws. “We’re at a point in our season where we’re put ourselves in a spot where every possession matters. Guys are bought in. On the defensive end, it’s life or death. We have to get stops every night. I’m happy with how our guys are responding and helping each other. We’re all together on defense.”

The Cougars, who are in second place in the West Coast Conference standings, want to clamp down defensively on Loyola Marymount Thursday (9 p.m., MST, ESPNU) at Gersten Pavilion.

BYU is coming off a 90-76 home win over San Francisco in a game that saw the Cougars’ 25-point lead early in the second half evaporate to seven points with 2:36 remaining.

Coach Mark Pope is trying to help his players avoid lapses like that — it’s a pattern that happened in other games this season. He wants his team to play with urgency.

“For 26 games, they’ve come every single night to come fight. I’d be interested to see how many coaches could say that about their teams. They’ve come to fight 26 consecutive times. You usually don’t have teams that do that. You have one or two or three games where it’s like you’re in mud the whole night,” he said. “This team has done that. The fact that the last 15 minutes of that game we weren’t starving to get better … it felt like we passed up on an opportunity as a team, myself included. That was the biggest issue. We don’t have time to waste. We have to get so much better. We don’t have a lot of time.”

The Cougars (19-7, 8-3) beat LMU (8-16, 2-8) in their WCC opener on Jan. 4, 63-38. Lion guard Eli Scott is averaging 15.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

“There’s no team that is more confusing to me than this Loyola Marymount team,” Pope said. “They’re switching defenses all of the time. They make it really chaotic that way. Within a possession, they switch defenses. They’re playing a really interesting lineup now with no traditional point guard and no traditional two guard. They’re all 6-foot-6 to 6-9 and really, really physical. We have our work cut out for us.”

Guard Zac Seljaas, who has become one of the Cougars’ defensive stoppers, likes the way BYU has improved on the defensive end throughout the season.

“We took to heart the whole thing of getting better every single day,” he said. “From the start to when we were in Hawaii to now, it’s kind of changed how hard we’ve focused on defense. At the end of the games, we really focus on getting stops. That’s how we’re going to win games.”

Forward Yoeli Childs knows if his team is going to reach its goals, the defense must be consistent.

“We always have five guys on the court that can shoot the ball and pass the ball. We’ve gotten to the point that we don’t talk about offense anymore,” he said. “Our practices are all about defense. We’re at the point where we know how to play with each other. Our focus is really on the defensive end right now.”

“The story’s stayed the same for us all year. We trust each other on offense,” said forward Dalton Nixon. “We play really hard and we share the ball. It’s a fun way to play offense. We just need to keep getting better defensively. And I think that we can be successful these next few weeks as we approach the conference tournament.”

After playing LMU, BYU travels to San Diego Saturday. While both opponents are at the bottom of the conference standings, the Cougars aren’t taking anything for granted.

“Every game is so hard. Every single game is life or death. You have to fight at 100 percent to have a chance to win a game,” Pope said. “Both of these teams have struggled so far in league but if we don’t come 100 percent, we won’t have a chance to win. You can’t roll in with any assumptions, unless you’re Gonzaga. You have to play with every bit of your heart and soul.”

*****

BYU (19-7, 8-3) at Loyola Marymount (8-16, 2-8)

Thursday, 9 p.m. MST

Gersten Pavilion

TV: ESPNU

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM