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Unselfish chemistry leading the way for Mark Pope, BYU basketball squad

BYU has climbed to 15th in KenPom heading into the rematch with San Francisco Saturday night and a key has been unselfish play and fostering of unique chemistry among players.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Connor Harding (44) dunks the ball in Provo against the Pepperdine Waves on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.
BYU Cougars guard Connor Harding (44) dunks the ball in Provo in a West Conference basketball game against the Pepperdine Waves on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in the Marriott Center in Provo.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

It’s chemistry.

Mark Pope has the Cougars sailing into Saturday’s rematch with San Francisco, a key league showdown and a chance for revenge. BYU has lost three in a row to the Dons.

Pope dodged an ankle injury to star senior Jake Toolson as the sharpshooter did not miss the Portland game. He’s got jumping jack Gavin Baxter in his back pocket, ready to activate and his team is streaking as the most accurate shooting team BYU has had in three decades.

Basketball is one of those games where role-playing, the proper fit, teamwork and unselfish play are significant barriers to overcome to be good. Pope’s done it.

Pope’s stars get it. But it’s more than that.

You see this clearly in the work of players off the bench.

Connor Harding’s defensive work on Saint Mary’s superstar guard Jordan Ford during crunch time a week ago in Provo was impressive. He dogged a tiring Ford and kept him from making big plays. He can also bomb it, finish it and is a beast on the boards.

Big Kolby Lee has perfected a quick close-range shot that forces defenses into a quandary, just enough to open up the offense.

Zac Seljaas cooled off Thursday at Portland, although he had a perfect night shooting from distance in the first Portland game (21 points). This season, he has turned into a pesky guard and rebounder with high energy. Dalton Nixon is a rock, has increased his 3-point accuracy by double and plays his guts out. These two can create more storylines than Adam Schiff.

And then there’s the ball sharing, not getting the ball stuck, getting the best shot.

Those traits are appreciated by former Cougar and Brazilian Bomber Jonathan Tavernari. What fun.

“The genius of Mark Pope is how he’s getting guys to buy into the team mentality,” said Tavernari.

“Zac has had an up-and-down career and now we’re getting to see an overall performer instead of simply a shooter. Connor, a sophomore playing key minutes behind upperclassmen and a valued rotation guy, is being groomed for a big workload the next two years. All of this thanks to Mark and his staff being players’ coaches.”

Tavernari never saw a shot he didn’t like. He was unabashed at pulling the trigger and had soaring confidence through his BYU career. He knows the value of an open shot and how hard it is to get one.

“Shooting wise, credit goes first and foremost to the guys putting in work,” Tavernari said. “If you wanna be a great shooter, simply go to the gym and put in the time. And to complement that, the way this (team) plays is catered to shooters: ball movement, the extra pass, in and out, drive and kick.”

They’ll need all of this come Saturday against the Dons of San Francisco, a talented team that plays hard and came back from a double-digit deficit to beat the Cougars.

At Portland, the Cougars turned the ball over and looked like sleepwalkers the first 15 minutes of the game before Toolson and Childs caught fire.

In that game, against the worst team in the league, BYU hit 50.9% from the field, the eighth-straight game the Cougars have hit 50% or better. It is the second longest streak of 50%-plus shooting in team history. The 1988-89 team shot better than 50% in nine straight games.

You don’t do that without chemistry and taking the best shots.

Pope’s first BYU team ranks No. 1 in the nation in 3-point shooting at 42%. Six players are shooting over 40% from distance and none of those is archer TJ Haws, who has turned facilitator, organizer, scorer, rebounder, game-winning shot maker.

If you take West Coast Conference play only, the league’s top three bombers are Alex Barcello (57.1%), Toolson (56.9%) and Haws (45.2%). That’s blister territory. In all games, Toolson is the nation’s No. 2 shooter from 3-point range at 49.3%t.

The Cougars are 18-7 overall, 7-3 in the WCC, No. 15 in KenPom, and 22nd in NET.

Not too shabby of a resume for the final stretch.