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BYU’s Alex Barcello loses part of a tooth as defensive-minded Cougars hold on to earn ugly win over Pepperdine

Over the final five minutes, BYU clamped down defensively and closed on an 8-0 spurt to claim a 65-54 victory, extending the Cougars’ win streak to four.

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Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (13) gets ready to shoot over the Pepperdine Waves position at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

It’s clear that this BYU basketball team isn’t always going to earn a lot of style points. 

But these Cougars have proven to be pretty good at getting enough points, and preventing opponents from scoring points at crucial moments, to earn victories.

In the latest episode of BYU’s presentation of “How To Win With Grit” happened Saturday night against Pepperdine at the Marriott Center, where the Cougars built a 16-point lead, then watched the Waves whittle the deficit to three points on a 15-2 run with less than five minutes to go.

But over those final minutes, BYU clamped down defensively and closed on an 8-0 spurt to claim a 65-54 victory, extending the Cougars’ win streak to four. 

”Man, we love these types of games. We don’t want to blow a team out. We want games that are close, which can actually help us grow as a team and help us be ready for tournament time,” said guard Trevin Knell, who drilled four 3-pointers and finished with 12 points. “This BYU team, we’re different from old BYU teams. We take pride in our defense. We work every single day on two things — getting shots and footwork. We really work hard on defense. Practices are grueling but nothing’s better than getting a win on our home floor.” 

How physical, and unusual, was this game?

Star guard Alex Barcello suffered a chipped tooth, leaving a gaping hole in his smile, in the first half during a scramble for a loose ball. It was emblematic of this team — and this game. He didn’t score a single point until the final three minutes of the contest. Barcello, who missed all seven of his field goal attempts, scored all four of his points from the free throw line during that final run that sealed the game.

“After he chipped his tooth, we definitely huddled up as a team and said, ‘Let’s go do this for our brother,’” said guard Brandon Averette, who scored a team-high 15 points. “I mean, they just knocked his tooth out. It gave us a little extra push as a team.”

“Because guys are so willing to fight for each other, you have nights like this where Alex Barcello, the biggest contribution he made to the game was losing his tooth, right?” said coach Mark Pope. “Then we have other guys step up and find a way to win.”

Just when it looked like BYU was running away from Pepperdine by taking a 55-39 advantage with 10 minutes remaining, the Waves started crashing in at the Marriott Center. 

Guard Colbey Ross, who scored a game-high 21 points, and forward Kessler Edwards willed their team back into the game. 

Edwards, who averages 18 points a game and was coming off a career-high 37 against Pacific last Thursday, missed his first six shots of the game Saturday. His first field goal came with nine minutes remaining. Edwards scored 10 of the Waves’ final 13 points to cut the deficit to 57-54 at the 4:50 mark.

“After he chipped his tooth, we definitely huddled up as a team and said, ‘Let’s go do this for our brother’” — guard Brandon Averette on Alex Barcello

BYU forward Kolby Lee, who scored 10 points, was assigned to shut down Edwards, and that’s exactly what he did. 

“What an awesome job the last four minutes when Kessler Edwards got hot,” said assistant coach Chris Burgess. “Kolby came in and (Edwards) didn’t get another basket.”

As usual, the Cougars got key contributions from players up and down the roster.

Connor Harding came off the bench to collect 10 rebounds and make big defensive plays. Matt Haarms recorded four blocks and altered a number of other shots. 

“I was so proud of Matt Haarms,” Pope said. “How good was his rim protection tonight? There were people in the stands when he was blocking shots that were ducking because they were afraid the ball was going to hit them in the head. His physicality on the defensive end was really special.”

After hitting all nine of his field goals in last Thursday’s win over Portland, Haarms struggled much of the night offensively Saturday. But his fadeaway jumper at the top of the key as the shot clock was expiring with 1:45 left gave BYU a 61-54 edge. 

“Matt Haarm’s buzzer-beater at the end of the shot clock was just one of those taking-the-lid-off-the-basket shots,” Burgess said. 

Meanwhile Cougars didn’t allow Pepperdine to score over the final four-plus minutes of the game. 

“That’s becoming the face of this team. We’re tough and gritty on both ends of the floor,” Averette said. “Specifically, when it comes winning time, we always seem to pick it up on the defensive end and we’re able to get stops and make it tough on other teams and take them out of their offense. That’s definitely becoming one of our keys to winning — our defense. And I love it.”

Speaking of faces, Barcello went to a dentist appointment immediately after the game, Pope said, to repair his damaged tooth. 

Barcello dove on the floor going after a loose ball and Pepperdine forward Kendall Munson’s elbow smacked him in the face. Barcello left the floor but returned relatively quickly. 

“A lot of people wouldn’t even want to be on the court with a chipped tooth,” Averette said. “He’s all about the team. We all knew he was going to come back out there and battle with us. I told him after the game I loved it. He looked beautiful to me. It’s a battle wound. We went to war together and pulled it out.”

BYU built an 11-point halftime lead but it shot just 31% in the second half. During one stretch, the Cougars made just 1 of 13 shots from the floor as part of a scoring drought that lasted about five minutes. 

But once again, like it did in wins over Saint Mary’s and San Francisco last week, BYU (13-3, 3-1) found a way to come out on top against Pepperdine (6-7, 2-2), which hosts the Cougars Wednesday in Malibu. 

For now, BYU will bask in the glow of another grind-it-out victory. 

“That’s a gutsy win. What a hard-fought, ugly, defensive battle from both teams. It was a slugfest. Alex loses a tooth. Guys missed shots they normally make,” Burgess said. “Pepperdine makes a fantastic run and our guys, man, they found a way to win on the defensive end … with a bunch of defensive stops.  That’s how you do it. That’s what we’ve been doing this year. That’s how you win games.”