For BYU to snap its vexing six-game losing streak at Saint Mary’s, and to end a prolonged hex in Moraga, it didn’t require a superb 3-point shooting display.
Instead, on a night that the Cougars made only one 3-pointer, it required a superb display of second-half defense.
BYU locked down the Gaels over the final 10 minutes and finished with a stunning 19-2 run to vanquish Saint Mary’s 62-52 at UCU Pavilion Thursday night.
It marked one of BYU’s biggest wins in the coach Mark Pope era, and this Quad 1 victory is likely to loom large in March as the Cougars make their case for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth.
And, by the way, Pope still hasn’t lost back-to-back games as BYU’s coach.
“I’m just so happy,” Pope told the BYU Radio Network. “For us right now, anytime we come in here and win, it’s just so massive.”
The Cougars (10-3, 1-1) earned their first West Coast Conference win of the season, and it’s only the second time they have won in Moraga since joining the league in 2012.
BYU’s last win at UCU Pavilion came in 2014.
“It felt good to go out there and get some of these guys their first win here,” said guard Brandon Averette, who scored all nine of his points in the second half.
Two of the biggest contributors Thursday were two players who had never played at UCU Pavilion before — Averette and Gideon George. They combined to score 13 of BYU’s final 19 points.
But it was the Cougars’ defense that spelled the difference, George in particular.
Saint Mary’s guard Tommy Kuhse scored 12 points but zero over the final 12 minutes, thanks in large part to George’s defensive efforts. George’s athleticism bottled up Kuhse during BYU’s decisive final stretch.
“I’ll give credit to Gideon for that. We were having trouble with the ball screen coverages and trying to get back in front,” Averette said. “We put Gideon on (Kuhse) and he handled it for us for the rest of the game. We were able to get stops and put them together. Honestly, it sparked our run.”
As a team, BYU clamped down on a Saint Mary’s side that’s built a longstanding reputation for offensive efficiency.
“Kuhse and all their guards were going right downhill,” Pope said. “We changed it up where we were squaring the guys up more. That really helped.”
The coach praised George and his teammates for their defense. The Cougars held the Gaels to 30% shooting in the second half, including 1 of 8 from 3-point territory.
“Gideon George made a huge difference, just his length on Kuhse, and then our whole team, the cumulative effect on Kuhse as being their primary playmaker and decision-maker, you could see it at the end of the game,” Pope said. “He was just exhausted, and rightfully so. He played 40 minutes and played as tough as nails. He’s a really special kid. I was really proud of our guys in that area — the way they managed ball screens down the stretch.”
With just over 11 minutes remaining in the contest, the physical Gaels led 48-40 and it appeared they were on their way to yet another home victory over the Cougars despite no fans in the stands and despite the fact that Saint Mary’s was playing without one of its top players, guard Alex Ducas, due to injury.
But from that point on, BYU outscored SMC 22-4. The Gaels made just 1 of their final 12 field goals of the game.
Who would have guessed that the Cougars could knock off Saint Mary’s by making just one 3-pointer?
Yes, BYU went 1 of 10 from 3-point range. In the end, it didn’t matter because they outscored Saint Mary’s in the paint by a dominant 44-24 margin.
Reasons for BYU’s woes in Moraga over the years are inextricably linked to the way the Gaels play.
“Our styles of play are so diametrically opposite. We had six assists and we were 1 of 10 from the 3-point line,” Pope said. “We are a team that lives on assisted baskets and lives from space on the 3-point line. That’s exactly what Saint Mary’s prides themselves on, turning it into an isolation game. It’s such a challenging matchup for us … We hate isolation plays. It’s not who we are.”
“I didn’t even notice that we made only one 3. Just staying in the game, we’re a team that will figure it out,” Averette said. “That’s one of the things that these coaches preach. No matter what, we’re going to figure out a way to win. Our bigs came up big for us tonight. They couldn’t stop them. We built momentum off that.”
Another reason why the Cougars won this game? They outrebounded the Gaels 37-31.
“I was unbelievably proud of us on the glass. I’ve been here a bunch of times and when it gets to a grind-out game, you just give up buckets on the defensive glass and it kills you down the stretch,” Pope said. “Rich Harward and Caleb Lohner and Gideon George and Alex Barcello were saying, ‘We’re not having it. We’re going to gobble up every single one of these.’”
Sophomore guard Trevin Knell made his first career start Thursday while erstwhile starter Connor Harding came off the bench. Knell knocked down big shots in the second half, including back-to-back jumpers over the final six minutes.
He finished with seven points.
Barcello scored a team-high 14 points and Matt Haarms added nine. Caleb Lohner chipped in four points and collected a game-high nine rebounds.
In addition to clamping down on Kuhse, George scored eight points and was able to create his own shot at a time late in the game when the Cougars needed it.
The Cougars trailed by as many as eight in the second half before their game-clinching run. In the end, BYU won by 10 points. The previous three meetings between the two programs, last season, were decided by a total of six points.
“We knew it was going to be a battle. We knew we were going to have to keep fighting,” Averette said. “They weren’t going to go away and neither were we. We knew what kind of game it was going to be coming in. It was fun. Those are the type of games you really live for.”
Saturday, BYU visits San Francisco while Saint Mary’s hosts No. 1 Gonzaga.