PROVO — With 21 seconds remaining and an epic 91-78 victory over No. 2 Gonzaga all but wrapped up, BYU coach Mark Pope turned to his bench and summoned injured senior forward Dalton Nixon into the game.
Nixon, who is nursing a major ankle injury, took the inbounds pass. He held the ball for eight seconds before officials whistled a shot clock violation, awarding the ball to the Zags. Pope then subbed out the five seniors so they could be acknowledged one last time by the raucous sellout crowd of 18,987.
It was one of many captivating subplots from that night, including fans storming the court after the final buzzer.
Nixon’s parents, Kevin and Stephanie Nixon, were part of the crowd and they’ll always remember those eight seconds.
“It wasn’t even in our minds that he would actually get on the floor. But that’s Mark Pope. He’s constantly thinking of ways to build people up,” said Kevin Nixon, a former Cougar star. “For him to allow Dalton to go out there with the four guys that he’s gone through the most with, all seniors, and to give him the ball and let the crowd cheer him and then walk off the floor with them was just special. It’s something we’ll never forget. We’ll always be grateful to coach Pope for allowing him to have that moment.”
Dalton Nixon, who had been in street clothes and a walking boot two days earlier when BYU played Santa Clara, was in uniform for Saturday’s game.
Pope had thought about honoring Dalton Nixon in that way before the game tipped off but he was concerned about how it might look because of the tremendous respect he has for coach Mark Few and the entire Gonzaga program. Pope had discussed the situation with Few, who was supportive of the tribute.
“You always get nervous about messing with things at the end of game,” Pope said afterwards. “Dalton has been the heart and soul for us. I wanted him to be able to walk on the floor and have people be able to show their appreciation for just a second.”
This was the best moment of the night. The seniors getting to savor this win. Dalton Nixon getting a chance to get in. Yoeli, TJ, and Jake leave the Marriott Center court for the last time. pic.twitter.com/9LlUJ5tY6I— Zak Hicken (@zakhicken) February 23, 2020
As usual, Pope found humor in the moment.
“Dalt was not happy because he’s worked really hard on his points-per-possession and I made him take the turnover,” he said. “He wasn’t happy about that but he was happy about getting on the floor. We’ve got to get him back. Hopefully, it will be soon.”
No. 17 BYU visits Pepperdine Saturday (4 p.m., MST, CBS SN) in the regular-season finale.
‘It was a freak thing’
Dalton Nixon hasn’t played since sustaining a rare double-ankle sprain in the second half at Loyola Marymount on Feb. 13. As he was attempting a breakaway layup, Nixon was fouled while he was in the air. He landed awkwardly into the stanchion and his foot twisted violently.
“It was a freak thing. We wondered if he was ever going to play again,” said Kevin Nixon, who was sitting near the court at Gersten Pavilion when the injury happened. “It really didn’t look good. Stephanie and I were in mourning right away.”
Like his teammates, Dalton had Saturday’s game against Gonzaga highlighted in his mind — and not just because it was Senior Night. Not long after the Zags throttled the Cougars 91-69 at The Kennel on Jan. 18, Nixon found his parents in the arena and told them, “I can’t wait to play these guys at our place.”
But, as it turned out, he would be sidelined for the biggest game of the year so far.
Before the contest, during emotional Senior Night festivities, Nixon marched onto the court with his wife, Taylen (a BYU volleyball player) and his parents, and was recognized by the crowd.
“From the beginning, since he was a little boy, you dream of him playing for BYU. When that dream comes true, you know that eventually it will come to an end. We have been dreaming of this scenario,” Kevin said. “With him being injured, it was different from what you think is going to happen.
“It was fun because you get to go out there and acknowledge his commitment and loyalty to the school. That’s a big deal. It was pretty cool for me to give coach Pope a big hug and tell him how much our family appreciates him. And also to hug Lee Anne (Pope’s wife) and (athletic director) Tom Holmoe and (associate athletic director) Brian Santiago and President (Kevin) Worthen and President (Matthew) Richardson. They have all made a huge impact on Dalton’s life. It was a moment where we could reflect.”
What many BYU fans may not realize is, Dalton Nixon practically grew up with four of the seven seniors who were honored. He’s known Haws and Seljaas since third grade and he’s known Toolson since fifth grade and Childs since seventh grade.
“It’s a little more special than people think,” Kevin said. “Then Dalt felt helpless, not being able to contribute the way that he has. It was really hard on him. But he amazes me. His approach has been, ‘I know I can’t step on the floor so how do I impact the games and the team? What can I give to the team?’”
‘One of a kind’
Nixon’s teammates, of course, understand the void that the 6-foot-7, 215-pounder from Orem leaves with him being sidelined.
“He brings so much to the table. He’s such an effort guy. That effort is contagious on a team,” Haws said last week. “He makes such big defensive plays that give us momentum and a confidence boost. Everybody’s going to have to step up to make up for that defensive effort that he brings.
“He does so many things well on the offensive end as well,” Haws continued. “It’s just his energy and demeanor that he brings every game. Guys are going to have to bring that. I think we have guys that are ready to step up and help us. Dalt will definitely be missed. He can’t be replaced. But I think guys will step up.”
In the opening moments of the game, Haws drew two charges against the Zags. Each time Haws jumped up and pointed to Nixon on the bench.
“I think Dalt is one of a kind. He makes winning plays. He has no agenda. He’s so unselfish and just wants to win. Him going down has been hard for us to see because we feel so bad for him. But it’s now our job to step up,” said Toolson. “We’ve rallied together and said, ‘Dalton hasn’t played his last game in this uniform. We’re going to keep winning until he’s back and then he’s going to pick right back up.’ We know he’ll be back. But until then, we have to be like him. I think we’ll do that.”
Nixon averages 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game but those numbers don’t begin to describe his value to the team. His movement on offense, his ball screen defense, his willingness to dive for loose balls and bang inside for tough rebounds are skills that don’t necessarily reveal themselves in the box score.
“It manifests itself with how hard he pops and how well he spaces the floor and how well he’s shot the ball and how hard he runs in transition. In all those categories, he’s probably our best guy,” Pope said. “That’s been weighing heavily on me. Even though that might not turn out to be the most numerically significant guy on the stat sheet, he is the guy that’s making a huge difference for us in terms of us being able to be so efficient offensively and work so well.
“On the defensive end, he steals possessions from the other team. That’s the best way to say it. He finds ways to steal possessions, whether it’s charges or a timely steal in the post,” Pope continued. “He knocks balls away and comes up with deflections. It’s a huge part of what we do. We have really good players. Dalton stepped in and saved everybody else (earlier this season). So it’s everybody else’s time to step in and save Dalton for a little while.”
So what’s Dalton Nixon’s prognosis?
Last week, he received some good news — there wasn’t as much soft tissue damage to his ankle as originally thought and his range of motion has improved.
“He suffered a lot of trauma on that ankle,” Kevin Nixon said. “It’s looking better than expected. Considering he had a pretty traumatic event happen to his ankle 12 days ago, he feels pretty lucky that there wasn’t more damage. There’s a lot of hope. He feels like in a couple of weeks, he’ll be able to do a lot of things.”
Every week, Dalton Nixon has his ankle evaluated by doctors.
“The weekend of the WCC tournament, he’ll get evaluated and we’re hoping he’ll get cleared,” Kevin Nixon said. “That doesn’t mean he’ll play but he could play a few minutes to integrate. He’s maintained his level of conditioning. He’s doing the underwater treadmill this week. The hope is that he’s on the floor on a Thursday playing for the Cougars in the NCAA Tournament — exactly five weeks to the day after his injury.
“They’re being as cautious as they can with the understanding that you don’t have an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament every day,” he added. “Coach Pope asks, ‘How soon can I get him back?’ And the doctors say, ‘How long can we hold him out?’ It’s a constant tug-of-war.”
A mentoring role
In the meantime, Dalton Nixon, while sidelined, is doing everything he can to help his teammates.
Gavin Baxter, who missed the first 25 games of the season with a shoulder injury, is trying to find his groove. During games, Baxter looks over to Dalton Nixon for help on where he should be on the floor.
Before Nixon’s injury, Childs pulled the fellow senior aside and said, “Show me how to take a charge. I want to be better.”
“It’s been a perfect opportunity for him to mentor and spend time with Gavin and help him be in the right spot,” Kevin Nixon said. “He’s doing the same thing with Kolby (Lee) and Zac. Dalton’s got an incredible IQ. I coached him when he was a kid and he’s always understood what was going on.”
After the Gonzaga win, Dalton Nixon was proud of Seljaas’ defense, particularly in the second half, when he ripped the ball out of the hands of the Zags’ Ryan Woolridge, which led to a Toolson 3-pointer.
Seljaas helped compensate for Dalton Nixon’s absence on the floor.
“They’re different players offensively but defensively they’re very similar in their approach,” Kevin Nixon said. “Zac was tremendous the last four or five minutes. He was an absolute beast.”
Pope praised Seljaas after the game and invoked Dalton Nixon’s name as well.
“Zac was fighting for rebounds and loose balls and making plays. He’s just a winner. And he’s being rewarded for it,” he said. “How do you help young players see Zac Seljaas and see that that is winning basketball? I’m grateful that all the young guys on this team can watch Zac and Dalton Nixon. That’s winning basketball.
“Do you want a gym like that on Senior Night? Play like those guys do. Zac doesn’t hold anything back. He’s giving his whole heart and soul and he’s sacrificed so much for this team. He came in (to BYU as a freshman) as a 3-point marksman. It’s not his role on this team. I mean, he’s still banging shots for us but he’s decided to do whatever it takes. I love him so much.”
BYU’s seniors have played their last game at the Marriott Center. As gratifying as that upset of Gonzaga was, they have even bigger goals they’re chasing, including earning an NCAA Tournament bid and then advancing.
When he can, Nixon will join his teammates on the floor again.
“We have to win enough games that we can prolong the season long enough for him to play,” Pope said. “That’s our job now.”
“He’s doing whatever he can to help his team right now,” Kevin Nixon said of his son. “But he knows that before the end of the season, he’s going to be able to come back and make an impact on the floor.”
Cougars on the air
No. 17 BYU (23-7, 12-3)
at Pepperdine (15-14, 8-7)
Saturday, 4 p.m. MST
TV: CBS SN
Radio: KSL 1160 AM, BYU Radio