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BYU faces ‘toughest road week of season’ starting with longtime nemesis Saint Mary’s

As always, this matchup has big implications on both teams in terms of their NCAA tournament resumes. Just last season, their three meetings were decided by a total of six points.

BYU coach Mark Pope speaks with an official during the second half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.
Young Kwak, Associated Press

A week after falling by 17 points at No. 1 Gonzaga in a game that wasn’t that close, BYU faces another big West Coast Conference road challenge.

The Cougars visit Saint Mary’s Thursday (9 p.m. MST, ESPN2) — a place where they haven’t won since 2014. That’s six consecutive losses at UCU Pavilion.

Meanwhile, under Mark Pope, BYU hasn’t lost back-to-back games since he became the head coach in 2019.

As always, this BYU-Saint Mary’s matchup has major implications for both teams in terms of their NCAA tournament resumes. On Saturday, the Cougars travel to San Francisco.

“This is probably the toughest road week of our season,” Pope said. “It’s a huge week for us. We’ll see how we respond.”

In Wednesday’s NET rankings, BYU landed at No. 41, with Saint Mary’s checking in at No. 62 and USF sitting at No. 89.

BYU and Saint Mary’s have developed an intense rivalry since the Cougars joined the WCC in 2011-12.

Just last season, their three meetings were decided by a total of six points.

The Gaels edged BYU in Moraga, 87-84, in overtime and the Cougars won in Provo, 81-79, on a TJ Haws 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining.

Then in the WCC tournament semifinals, in what turned out to be BYU’s final game of the season with the NCAA tournament eventually being canceled, Saint Mary’s topped the Cougars 51-50 on Jordan Ford’s jumper with 1.4 seconds left, snapping BYU’s nine-game win streak.

In that game last March in Las Vegas, guard Alex Barcello played with a broken wrist, which he suffered in the regular-season finale at Pepperdine.

“I remember how physical they were. It was a battle from start to finish,” Barcello said of those games with the Gaels. “They’re an extremely physical team. They set a lot of high ball screens, they share the ball really well, and they have high-talented players. Just like the game against Gonzaga, it’s going to be a battle. We’re going to have to come in on our ‘A’ game and be ready for a fight from start to finish.”

Due to COVID-19 issues and related game postponements, this marks BYU’s second game since Dec. 23, 2020. The Gaels, meanwhile, have played only once since Dec. 30. Saint Mary’s dropped its WCC opener to Santa Clara, 66-64, at home last Saturday.

“Everybody’s facing challenges this year. This is challenging for everybody,” Pope said of the schedule disruptions. “For us, we have to find a way to get back our urgency and the desperation that we played with through the nonconference. It’s something that we’re talking about and working on. It’s going to be a test of our locker room to see if we can stay dialed in.”

Since the loss at Gonzaga, Pope and his staff have tried to dissect what happened there, how the Cougars were blown off the court in the opening minutes. BYU trailed 30-7 just minutes into the game.

“You’re always judging the energy and focus of your team. We spent a lot of time talking about the Zags. We spent a lot of time focused on what they do well, and how to minimize it,” Pope said. “Upon reflection, I wonder if we just leaned that way a little bit too much and I wonder if that was something that had an effect on my guys’ energy and aggressiveness.”

For this week with a pair of road games, Pope is taking a different approach with his team.

“We’re trying to spend a larger percentage of time really focused on us, and how we can function, and what we do well, and how we can do it better,” Pope said. “Of course, my guys are fully aware of how physical, how fundamentally sound these Saint Mary’s teams are. They’ll know more once they’ve been through it once. These games always turn into just a physical slugfest. Saint Mary’s is clearly the most physical team in our league, or at least they have been traditionally. I expect them to be this season also. It turns into a grind-it-out game. We’ve spent some time talking about the potential pace of the game, space on the floor, but we’re also spending a lot of time just focused on us right now.”

Barcello said in preparing for this week, his team is “continuing to get better in practice every day — that’s our main focus right now. We’re coming off a tough loss against Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the country. We were going into it prepared and came out with a loss. But I think being able to bounce back from that. (It’s about trying to) just come ready, hungry for these next two games.”