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‘Their legacy here at BYU is intact’: Mark Pope praises team’s accomplishments, hurts for seniors that won’t get to play in NCAA Tournament

This BYU team returned to the national rankings for the first time in nine years and finished the regular-season with nine consecutive victories. Some national pundits projected the Cougars as a Sweet 16 team, or even a Final Four team, in the NCAA Tournament. 

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope gets angry with the referee when a foul wasn’t called during the BYU-Saint Mary’s West Coast Conference semifinal game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 9, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

PROVO — It was one of the greatest and most memorable seasons in BYU basketball history. Then it ended abruptly in the most bizarre fashion imaginable.

Since falling 51-50 to Saint Mary’s last Monday in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, the No. 14 Cougars (24-8) were looking forward to Selection Sunday and their first NCAA Tournament in five years.

BYU was practicing Thursday afternoon when the NCAA announced that it was canceling the NCAA Tournament for the first time since its inception in 1939 due to the spread of COVID-19. During a film session, coach Mark Pope broke the news to his team.

“It was just awful. We sat in a silent locker room with some tears for what was way too long,” Pope recalled. “We won’t have that many times where this unit is together as a group, regrettably. It just can’t end. It’s too special. This group is too close. It’s too fun to compete for each other. And then it came to such a screeching, abrupt, halting end. The reality that we don’t get to compete on the floor again is almost too much to take right now.”

BYU seniors TJ Haws, Yoeli Childs and Zac Seljaas have never played in the NCAA Tournament. This was supposed to be their year and the Cougars were on their way to accomplishing that feat.

“I think most of my thoughts are with my guys right now. It’s really hard. It’s devastating for them, especially my seniors,” Pope said. “It’s been well-chronicled what they have sacrificed and how long they’ve been working towards this and fighting for this and how much of a beating they’ve taken over the last four or five years. And then to do everything humanly possible to earn it and have earned it in an extraordinary way and playing so incredibly well … It’s excruciating for these guys and it’s hard for us. That’s our experience right now. If I could control everything in the world, we would find some way to have this tournament just because my heart’s broken for these kids.”

This BYU team returned to the national rankings for the first time in nine years and finished the regular season with nine consecutive victories. It led the nation in 3-point shooting. It knocked off No. 2 Gonzaga in an epic victory on senior night in front of a sellout crowd at the Marriott Center.

Some national pundits projected the Cougars as a Sweet 16 team, or even a Final Four team, in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re certainly in uncharted territory. The NCAA has never had to deal with a pandemic before. I will tell you this — I believe this is true. There was nothing that could stop this team this year,” Pope said. “It wasn’t suspensions or injuries or coaching changes or a roster overhaul or adversity or tough losses or an incredible tough difficult schedule. The one thing that stopped this team is a pandemic. I do believe that this group was so committed that there was nothing that was going to stop them besides something otherworldly.”

For Pope, even though his players won’t get the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, what they accomplished this season will be remembered forever.

“In a basketball sense, for this team, it’s really tragic that they don’t have a chance to finish it. Their legacy here at BYU is intact. I hope that everybody that’s been able to witness this group of young men sacrifice for each other and do the special things that they’ve done, I just know they will,” he said. “I know BYU fans will remember these young men in terms of the impact they’ve had on the relationship they’ve built with fans this year and the extraordinary accomplishments and things that they’ve performed. On the one hand, it’s so devastating that they don’t get a chance to … it’s hard for this group because they have all come back to do this and get to this tournament and make something extraordinary happen. And they’ve taken the long road. They’ve taken a four- or five-year journey through disappointment and frustration to finally get here. That part is hard. But in terms of the young people that they are, we’ve all been very blessed to witness it.”

Pope and his team plans to continue spending time together as they cope with the reality of the season ending way too soon.

“There was a locker room full of tears and shock and utter silence actually for as long as I’ve been in silence. Then an hour later, I got a bunch of guys on the court working out,” Pope said. “I’m in the office with the staff almost in a self-preservation way, racing through lists and lists of things we have to accomplish in the next few days. That is what this team is built on. We’ll lose ourselves in our work together. These seniors have a ton of work to do. Our underclassmen have a ton of work to do and as a staff we have a ton of work to do and we don’t have a lot of time to do it. We’ll continue to share that together.”

Pope said the bond he and his staff have with the seniors will never end.

“In terms of relationships we have, we’ll be coaching these guys for the next 50 years, as long as they’ll allow us. We’ll be an intimate part of their lives. They’ll be a crucial part of what BYU basketball is. We built a foundation in our relationship with them that will continue.”