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Looking back: Jimmer, BYU upsets Kawhi, SDSU in clash of top 10 teams in San Diego; some games are defined by what you can’t foresee

It was Feb. 26, 2011, and the No. 7 Cougars had just upset No. 6 San Diego State in front of the SDSU student section, known as “The Show,” and a national television audience on CBS at the height of Jimmermania. The epicenter of the college basketball world that day was in San Diego.

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BYU guard Jimmer Fredette throws a running hook shot up as San Diego State’s Kawhi Leonard (15) defends during the second half of BYU’s 80-67 victory in an NCAA college basketball game in San Diego, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011.

Lenny Ignelzi, AP

Editor’s note: Sixth in an occasional series reminiscing about games not to be forgotten.

PROVO — Walking out of Viejas Arena that afternoon, I knew that the intense national scrutiny on this BYU basketball team — perhaps already at an all-time high — had just increased exponentially.

But I really had no idea. At the time, nobody did.

It was Feb. 26, 2011, and the No. 7 Cougars had just upset No. 6 San Diego State in front of the SDSU student section, known as “The Show,” and a national television audience on CBS at the height of Jimmermania. The epicenter of the college basketball world that day wasn’t in Chapel Hill or Lexington. It was in San Diego, of all places. 

In the moment, the game felt historic. It was one of the most memorable events I’ve ever covered and numerous writers from national publications were in attendance. Can’t be certain, but I might have seen Ron Burgundy there.

It featured two top 10 teams and two of the country’s top players — BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, the eventual consensus National Player of the Year, against San Diego State’s Kawhi Leonard, the future NBA All-Star and NBA Finals MVP. 

As it turned out, the Cougars (who improved to 27-2 overall) trailed only once, 2-0, and claimed a convincing 80-67 victory, one of the biggest regular-season wins in school history.

And as soon as it was over, people around the country were buzzing about the legitimate possibility of BYU receiving a No. 1 seed for the first time in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. The Cougars had just reached an apex but everyone was wondering what more they could accomplish.

Could this be a team that could break the school’s dubious streak of never reaching the Final Four?Could this team win a national championship? It seemed almost like fate. The Final Four was to be played in Houston, the hometown of BYU coach Dave Rose.

Going into that game in San Diego, which tipped off at 11 a.m. Pacific Time, the Aztecs had been looking to avenge a 71-58 loss to the Cougars in Provo on Jan. 26, which was another memorable moment from that season as the crowd at the Marriott Center stormed the court after the game and Fredette’s spectacular 43-point performance. That night, BYU handed SDSU its first loss of the season.

In the weeks leading up to the rematch in San Diego, The Show chanted during games against other opponents, “We want Jimmer!” The week of the game, they camped outside the arena, braving 70-degree temperatures. Actually, it rained that week. But as it turned out, it was the Cougars that dampened The Show’s mood at Viejas Arena that day. 

Prior to the game, asked about the kind of reception he was anticipating from The Show, Fredette was unfazed.

“Now they get their chance,” said Fredette, who celebrated his 22nd birthday the day before the game. “We’re looking forward to playing. It’s going to be a great game. It’s going to be a great atmosphere. Hopefully, we can go out and get a win. It will be tough, but I think we can do it.”

Anticipating a hostile crowd, SDSU coach Steve Fisher e-mailed a letter to “The Show,” imploring the students to exhibit respect toward BYU. 

”It is important to remember that when you are in the student section, you represent something greater than yourself. You represent San Diego State,” read part of the message. “We cannot cross the line into topics that are out of bounds and distasteful, particularly making fun of one’s religion.”

I guess that was Fisher’s way of saying, “You stay classy, San Diego.”

The message wasn’t wholeheartedly received, based on some of the chants, taunts and signs created by “The Show.” Some dressed up as Latter-day Saint missionaries, wearing white shirts, ties and bike helmets.

Before the game, SDSU called this showdown the biggest game in its history. Fredette called it “the biggest game in BYU history,” adding that “this game becomes even bigger” than the previous meeting. It was hard to argue that point. The two teams had a combined overall record of 53-3 and the Aztecs were riding an 18-game home winning streak. It pitted the No. 8 team in offense (BYU averaged 83 ppg) against the No. 7 team in scoring defense (SDSU gave up 58.6 ppg). 

Fredette, who was double-teamed much of the contest, scored a game-high 25 points that day but I remember it as an all-around team performance. The nation saw that BYU was far from a one-man show. This team had what it takes to contend for a national title.

The Cougars drilled 14 of 24 3-pointers, including four by Fredette. Charles Abouo also had four, Noah Hartsock hit three and Jackson Emery nailed two. Abouo finished with 18 points and Hartsock added 15. 

“When they had to make a basket, somebody made a basket and it was never the same somebody,” Fisher said. “That’s a mark of a really good team.”

”I’ve been telling everybody all year long that it’s not just me. It’s our team,” Fredette said. “I keep telling them if they are going to double-team me, I’m going to try to get it to my teammates and they are going to make shots and that’s why we have been winning games this whole year. If they don’t double-team me, then it’s my time to go be aggressive and score the basketball until they have to. That’s what makes our team good. I’m glad that more people were able to see that, that our team is very good.”

So good that many bracketologists and commentators declared the Cougars worthy of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Two days later, BYU vaulted from No. 7 to No. 3 in the national rankings. The Cougars had been ranked as high as No. 3 in the AP poll back in January of 1988, but I suspect the nation had never held BYU basketball in higher regard nationally than it did in late February 2011. 

It looked like the stars had aligned for the Cougars. This was BYU’s year. 

Then, suddenly, the complexion of the season changed in an instant. 

On March 1, a few days after the win over SDSU, BYU officials released a stunning announcement that starting center Brandon Davies, the team’s leading rebounder, had been suspended for the rest of the season due to an Honor Code violation, sending shockwaves throughout the country and creating headlines around the world. 

The 6-foot-9 sophomore started 26 of 29 games for BYU and was averaging 11.1 points (third-best on the team), and 6.2 rebounds in 24.9 minutes per game.

Everybody was discussing the Davies situation on national platforms and it became fodder for late-night talk show hosts.

Because of Jimmermania, there had already been widespread attention on BYU basketball. Davies’ suspension only amplified that attention and put the school’s Honor Code under a microscope.

But that’s another story.

As it turned out, the disconsolate Cougars got blown out in their next game, at home, to New Mexico, and then beat Wyoming to close out the regular season. This BYU team had to reinvent itself somewhat, relying on unsung players like Logan Magnusson to fill the void left by Davies.

The Cougars beat TCU and New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference Tournament before falling to San Diego State in the championship game.

BYU received a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 after wins over No. 14 Wofford and No. 11 Gonzaga. It marked the Cougars’ first Sweet 16 appearance in 30 years, a monumental accomplishment for the program.

The next week, BYU was eliminated by No. 2 Florida in overtime in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, SDSU earned a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance and it also fell in the Sweet 16 — to eventual national champion UConn. The Huskies beat Butler, the No. 8 seed, in the title game. Butler beat Florida, which had knocked off BYU two days earlier, to advance to the Final Four.

We’ll never know what might have happened had Davies played for the Cougars in the tournament.

That win at San Diego State marked Davies’ final game of the season. When I think about that contest now, I put it into full context. While Davies became the subject of jokes in many circles due to the reason for his suspension, many observers praised BYU for its handling of the situation, for placing principles above winning. Davies, who could have transferred or left the program, showed courage and resolve, returning to BYU that next season. He played his final two years in Provo, capping an outstanding Cougar career.

That BYU-SDSU game in February, 2011, proves that we can never predict the future — even the next week or the next month.

Who would have guessed after the Cougars upset No. 2 Gonzaga back on Feb. 22, another historic win for BYU, that less than a month later, the NCAA Tournament would be canceled due to a pandemic? Coincidentally, both BYU and SDSU were ranked and enjoying their best seasons in 2020 since that 2011 campaign.

In sports, and in life, you never know what could happen next. There might be a lesson in there somewhere about enjoying the moment. Another lesson? Some games, in hindsight, aren’t necessarily defined by what you see, but what you don’t foresee.