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‘We knew we were going to make a run’: BYU’s Jake Toolson reflects on a senior season that ended sooner than expected

Over the past few weeks, Toolson has seen the parade of hypothetical NCAA Tournament brackets and simulations on social media. Several projected the Cougars reaching the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight or even the Final Four.

BYU Cougars guard Jake Toolson (5) gestures after a Saint Mary’s turnover as BYU and Saint Mary’s play in a West Coast Conference basketball game in Provo at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. BYU won 81-79.
BYU Cougars guard Jake Toolson (5) gestures after a Saint Mary’s turnover as BYU and Saint Mary’s play in a West Coast Conference basketball game in Provo at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. BYU won 81-79.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — Since the college basketball season came to an abrupt halt in the middle of March due to the spread of COVID-19, BYU’s Jake Toolson has been able to spend plenty of quality time with his wife, Sarah, and their young son, Gus. He’s also been running outside and working out at home.

Toolson has also had time to reflect on the season, which ended too soon with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s like an open wound. It’s taking a long time to heal because there’s not very much closure right now. We haven’t had any time to spend together as a team to remember the season,” he said in a phone interview from Arizona. “Once the season ended, we were all by ourselves. We’ve had to do our best to move forward. Each person is dealing with it in their own way.”

During the past few weeks, Toolson has seen the parade of hypothetical NCAA tournament brackets and simulations on social media. Several projected the Cougars reaching the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight or even the Final Four. ESPN had the Cougars advancing all the way to the championship game before losing to Wisconsin.

“It’s definitely cool. It’s not just a coincidence. There’s a reason they’re doing that. We earned that. The way we played this year, the moments we had, the games that we won, that led to people projecting us to go deep in this tournament,” he said. “In previous years, BYU hasn’t been in the conversation to be in the tournament. It was, ‘You have to win in (the West Coast Conference Tournament) in Vegas to get in.’ For us to have an at-large bid and people picking us to go deep, that’s something for us to be really proud of.

“It helps ease the burden of not being able to play,” he continued. “A lot of people thought we would make a run and nobody more than us. We knew we were going to make a run. It’s too bad we weren’t able to. But the moments that we did have this year, we’ll remember them forever.”

The Cougars fell 51-50 to Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament semifinals on March 9. It turned out to be their final game of a season that saw them finish with a 24-8 record and a No. 18 final ranking.

But Toolson can’t help but think about what could have been.

“We all felt, especially after Vegas, that we all had so much left to do” he said. “We were grateful that we were in a position where we were still going to the NCAA Tournament regardless of the outcome in Vegas. We were going to use that and really take advantage of it and really make a run.

“We felt like we had time to move on and get ready for the NCAA Tournament. That’s been our goal all season long. Come to find out that it never happened. It ended so fast. We haven’t had the time to spend together to remember the season and put a bow on what was a remarkable, incredible season.”

Toolson was with his team when he learned that the tournament was canceled.

“For 20 minutes, we just sat there. We didn’t do anything,” he recalled. “There isn’t anything you could say in that moment to take away the pain we were all feeling. We had a moment of pain and vulnerability and we were really emotional.”

Toolson began his career at BYU in 2014-15 and ended up transferring to Utah Valley University, where he played for coach Mark Pope. When Pope took the BYU job last April, Toolson followed him to Provo as a grad transfer.

BYU Cougars guard Jake Toolson (5) drives by Portland Pilots center Theo Akwuba (12) in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. BYU won 96-70.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

And Toolson made the most of his final season of college basketball. He averaged 15.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. He shot 47% from the floor and 47% from 3-point range with a team-high 85 3s. Toolson scored a career-high 28 points, including six 3-pointers, at Pacific and drilled seven 3-pointers against Pepperdine. He was named first-team All-WCC and Newcomer of the Year.

“There were so many moments, so many great memories. What sticks out to me the most is, I believe that we were able to have such a special season because of the way we all bought in,” Toolson said. “Nothing was more important than winning. Every single person on the team had to sacrifice a lot, a little. However much of their personal agenda, they put it aside and we put winning first. We were able to accomplish great things this season because early on, that was what we all decided to do.

“We all wanted to win more than we wanted anything else. Coach told us that when you put the team first and put your agendas aside, you can get everything you want out of the season,” he continued. “And I feel like we did. We won at a high level. We all contributed. There were a lot of great performances and on any given night, it was one of however many guys. But every single night, it was all of us together. You see how it worked for us.

“That’s the thing I’ll remember most about this season — how special this team was and how special our locker room was. We were able to put everything aside and put winning first and we got everything we wanted.”

Among the highlights of the season included victories over Saint Mary’s and No. 2 Gonzaga at the Marriott Center.

“Those were huge games. Huge wins. They were so fun. The way we played was so fun. We shared the ball. We were connected. We were together,” Toolson said. “This team was the most special team I’ve ever been on. We all got along so well. We genuinely cared for one another and we wanted to see each other succeed.

“We put each other in positions to be the best that we could. We maximized our potential by helping each other out. That’s rare on a team. We just wanted to win more than anything else. The way this team genuinely loved each other made it so much easier for us to buy in. You could tell by the way we played. We played for each other.”

Toolson’s college basketball career is over but his basketball dreams aren’t. He’s hoping to play professionally somewhere. But right now, like everything else, there’s uncertainty about the future. These days, he’s trying to stay in shape. “I’ve never run outside so much in my life,” he said.

Toolson is working on his graduate degree in public administration and he’s close to signing with an agent.

“It’s kind of a unique time. I was already anticipating it being uncertain. Throwing a pandemic on top of that, there’s even more uncertainty. I’m taking it day by day,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds. I know this will blow over, hopefully soon, and basketball will be back. For me, I’m staying ready for my next opportunity and I’m excited about what’s next.”