PROVO — For quite a while Saturday afternoon, and into the early evening for that matter, the tension was palpable in the nearly empty Marriott Center as BYU’s NCAA Tournament hopes precariously hung in the balance.
A loss to Pacific, at home, would have been double trouble for the Cougars, who desperately needed a win over a Tigers team that entered the day ranked No. 139 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. BYU, No. 37 in the rankings, was trying to bounce back after a disappointing loss at Pepperdine on Wednesday.
In the end, the Cougars outlasted Pacific 95-87 in double overtime.
“On not our best night, the guys gutted it out,” said coach Mark Pope. “It’s the identity of our team.”
Yes, this matchup with the Tigers was much tougher than anyone expected — 48 minutes of white-knuckle craziness.
Overcoming missed free throws, times when they couldn’t throw the ball into the Pacific Ocean from the beach, defensive liabilities, as well as other sundry struggles, the Cougars survived against Pacific.
Fortunately for BYU (14-4, 5-2), senior guards Alex Barcello and Brandon Averette carried their team on their backs when their season was teetering on the brink.
Barcello scored 23 points, grabbed a career-high nine rebounds and dished out seven assists in 44 minutes while Averette had a game-high 24 points and five assists in 42 minutes.
“Coming off of a loss, I wanted to do whatever I could to help my guys get the win,” Barcello said. “We kept telling ourselves, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ We know how it feels to lose a game like this.”
Certainly, a defeat would have been devastating to the Cougars’ at-large NCAA Tournament resume.
“We understand the situation we’re in now. The tough loss to Pepperdine kind of put us in a tough spot. It puts a lot of pressure on these types of games,” Averette said. “That definitely added to our spark to come out and keep battling. We weren’t going to give in. We weren’t scared to lose but we were going to battle to the end and be good with the outcome.”
“Every game is a must-win,” Pope said. ”It’s the same for every team in college basketball. Even more than thinking about seeding and tournament bids, I think these guys have found a way to care about right now, to believe that right now is going to be a defining moment in what they accomplish as basketball players.”
So how did BYU get in this tenuous, uncomfortable position Saturday?
Let’s flash forward to late in the second half, when Pacific led by three points with 3:47 remaining. Barcello put BYU back on top, 64-62, after a couple of free throws and a layup.
The Tigers tied the game again with 52 seconds remaining and Caleb Lohner drew a foul. He had a chance to win the game at the free throw line with 3.2 seconds left.
But Lohner missed both attempts, sending the game into the first OT. In the first extra session, the two teams traded baskets in a back-and-forth slugfest. A Barcello layup with 19.8 seconds remaining tied the game at 75 and sent the game into double overtime.
“We understand the situation we’re in now. The tough loss to Pepperdine kind of put us in a tough spot. It puts a lot of pressure on these types of games. That definitely added to our spark to come out and keep battling. We weren’t going to give in.” — BYU guard Brandon Averette
BYU made only 2 of 6 free throws in the first overtime period and, again, it almost cost it the game.
But in the second OT, the Cougars never trailed.
Another BYU senior, Matt Haarms, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, scored on a hook shot, later made a putback and also grabbed an offensive rebound and made a pair of free throws after being fouled to propel the Cougars to an 88-81 lead with 1:55 left.
At the 1:18 mark, Averette buried a 3-pointer to make it 91-83 and essentially seal the win.
“When I got the ball, I looked at the shot clock. It was at like six or seven (seconds),” Averette said. “I was like, ‘I could miss, but either way, this one is going up. I’m going to make a play.’ I was lucky it enough that it dropped for me. I was glad to make a play to extend the lead and put the game away.”
Fittingly, Barcello buried a pair of free throws with 23.6 seconds left for BYU’s final points.
Pope praised his trio of seniors.
“Usually if your team is functioning well, then really the seniors’ DNA is imprinted on the team,” he said. “(Toughness) happens to be a particular skill and talent that those three guys have.”
Coming into the game, Pacific was last in the league in scoring and shooting percentage. The Tigers (5-4, 2-3) have played only half the number of total games BYU has this season due to COVID-19 issues.
It seemed like the kind of game the Cougars could take out their frustrations and right the ship after a frustrating loss at Pepperdine, but Pacific played with an edge all game long. Nothing came easy for BYU.
The Cougars opened the game looking like they had fixed some of their problems on offense, displaying good ball movement and knocking down a flurry of 3-pointers
With 12:06 left in the first half, Gideon George’s 3-pointer put BYU ahead 23-16.
But the Cougars then went more than five minutes without scoring while Pacific went on a 9-0 run to take the lead, 25-23. During that ugly stretch for BYU, the Cougars missed a bunch of shots, become stagnant and turned the ball over.
A pair of Barcello free throws and a 3-pointer by Spencer Johnson allowed BYU to re-take the lead, 28-25, but the Cougars subsequently went through another scoring drought that lasted nearly five minutes.
A 3-pointer by Averette with 37 seconds left in the half ended that dry spell, but Daniss Jenkins’ jumper with four seconds remaining gave the Tigers a 32-31 halftime lead.
In all, BYU opened the game going 8 of 13 from the field but it made just 2 of its final 16 field goals to end the half.
Pacific had four players score in double figures — Justin Moore (18), Jahbril Price-Noel (16), Jenkins (13) and Pierre Crockrell (12), but somehow, the Cougars were able to hold off the Tigers and keep their goal of getting to the NCAA Tournament alive.
“What this group cared about was winning this game, period, just like what they’ve cared about all season long,” Pope said. “They are skilled at being in the moment and not getting distracted or disappointed by what’s happened in the past or what might happen in the future.”
BYU is scheduled to visit San Diego Tuesday.