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Amid injury issues, thrilling games, NCAA Tournament hopes and newborn babies, BYU basketball thrives on drama

Fresh off a heart-pounding victory over Saint Mary’s, BYU heads into a weekend featuring games at Portland and at home against San Francisco. Will injured Jake Toolson play? How close is injured Gavin Baxter to getting on the floor?

BYU Cougars guard Jake Toolson (5) is crunched by Saint Mary’s Gaels forward Malik Fitts (24) as he tries to defend Gaels guard Alex Ducas (44) during an NCAA basketball game in Provo at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. BYU won 81-79.
BYU Cougars guard Jake Toolson (5) is crunched by Saint Mary’s Gaels forward Malik Fitts (24) as he tries to defend Gaels guard Alex Ducas (44) during an NCAA basketball game in Provo at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. BYU won 81-79.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PORTLAND, Ore. — A month before the 2019-2020 campaign tipped off, BYU coach Mark Pope, who was dealing with several issues and questions involving his team at the time, said, “We love drama. This is what we do.”

And the Cougars have been dancing with drama all season long.

Case in point — it was an emotional weekend for BYU, featuring last Saturday’s thrilling 81-79 triumph over West Coast Conference nemesis Saint Mary’s, highlighted by TJ Haws’ game-winning 3-pointer in the waning seconds before he headed to the hospital with his wife for the eventual birth of their first child, a son named Tyson Ralph Haws.

“It’s like a movie, man,” forward Yoeli Childs said after the game. “He’s thinking about his kid as he hits the shot? Are you kidding me?”

Another intriguing subplot on Saturday involved Jake Toolson, who injured his ankle in grotesque fashion in the first half, had to be helped off the court and into the locker room before he surprisingly returned moments later and played a big role in the Cougars’ win over the Gaels.

On the strength of that victory, the Cougars gained votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and vaulted from a No. 10 seed to a No. 7 seed in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest NCAA Tournament projections.

Meanwhile, the drama continues with personnel issues for the Cougars, who received some good news Tuesday when doctors cleared forward Gavin Baxter to participate in live drills in practice. Baxter, who tore his labrum in late September before undergoing surgery, wore a red jersey to remind his teammates to be careful with him.

“His shoulder is clear in terms of being healthy but strength-wise, we’ve got to see what he can do and whether he’s actually better,” Pope said.

Baxter told the Deseret News a couple of weeks ago that if his doctors allow him to play, he would love to, even if there’s only a handful of games remaining in the regular season. Will it come down to a decision like that in the coming days or weeks?

Guard Connor Harding missed practice Tuesday after suffering from what Pope said could be food poisoning but he’s expected to be available to play Thursday.

And Toolson was limping around during practice and did not participate in live drills. His status is unclear for Thursday’s game (8 p.m., MST, KJZZ/Stadium) when BYU visits Portland at the Chiles Center.

The Cougars know they’ve got to keep their focus.

“It’s just knowing that we can’t take a break. We’re coming toward the end of the season and obviously we have a set goal in mind of getting into the tournament and making a run,” said senior guard Zac Seljaas. “We’ve got to quickly move on. It was a great win (against Saint Mary’s). We celebrated afterwards in the locker room and Sunday as well. It’s just approaching this week with the mentality that it’s going to be another battle this week, just like every week is. We’re going to have to bring it in both games this week. … This is our biggest game because it’s our next game.”

While BYU (17-7, 6-3) sits in a tie for second place in the WCC standings with Saint Mary’s, the Pilots (9-15, 1-8) are in a tie for last place.

The Cougars beat Portland 96-70 in Provo on Jan. 11. But Pope said his team is in for a battle Thursday.

“My biggest concern right now is, if my guys think a 20-point win that we had here against Portland is going to replay itself there, they’ve lost their minds,” Pope said. “That’s not how this works.”

Portland has beaten USF, which beat BYU less than two weeks ago and then played No. 2 Gonzaga tough before falling.

The Pilots have lost seven consecutive games but Pope called Portland “an incredibly dangerous team.”

As BYU heads into this weekend’s contests against Portland and San Francisco, it has shot 50% or better in seven consecutive games, tying the second-longest single-season streak in school history. The record of nine games was established at the end of the 1988-89 season.

The drama continues.

Cougars on the air

BYU (17-7, 6-3) at Portland (9-15, 1-8)

Thursday, 8 p.m. MST

Chiles Center, Portland, Ore.

TV: KJZZ/Stadium/Watchstadium.com

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM