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‘Great teams earn massive pressure’: BYU climbs to No. 21 in NET rankings heading into final week of regular season

For now, the Cougars (17-5, 8-3) appear to have done enough to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament — but they need to continue winning.

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Brigham Young Cougars forward Matt Haarms (3) smiles after scoring two of his 23 points in the game against Portland.

BYU’s Matt Haarms and the Cougars will wrap up their regular season this week with home games against San Francisco and Saint Mary’s.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

BYU coach Mark Pope knows what’s at stake. And he and the Cougars relish being in his situation. 

BYU is ranked No. 21 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, up from No. 25 Saturday, after an 88-71 win at Loyola Marymount Saturday.

For now, the Cougars (17-5, 8-3) appear to have done enough to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament — but they don’t want to leave anything to chance. They need to continue winning.

This week, BYU closes out the regular season with a pair of rescheduled home games against San Francisco Thursday and against Saint Mary’s Saturday.

Both games were scheduled to take place earlier but were postponed due to COVID-19 issues with the Dons and the Gaels. These two games were added last week. BYU was originally scheduled to have one contest this week, Thursday against Santa Clara, before the WCC revamped the schedule. 

“It’s a massive week. In the course of the season, and we went through this last year, great teams earn massive pressure,” Pope said. “That’s what these guys are doing right now. They are earning the right that every game becomes so huge. Very few teams get to do that right now in the season, where every game means so much. I’m excited for our guys.”

While San Francisco and Saint Mary’s are not as strong as they’ve been in recent years, both teams pose challenges.

The Cougars beat both teams on the road on the same weekend back in January. BYU defeated the Gaels 62-52 — marking the Cougars’ first win in Moraga since 2014 — and two days later, they downed the Dons 72-63. 

“These teams have played us close. At their place, we were able to pull away,” said senior Matt Haarms, who scored 21 points and recorded five blocked shots against LMU. “We kind of played the exact same game against both of them. We were down four or six the entire game and then with seven or eight minutes to go, we get like 10 stops in a row to win the game. These are tough teams ... They’re very talented teams. You can’t take anything for granted. It’s going to be some tough games next week.”

After completing the regular season, the West Coast Conference Tournament is scheduled to tip off on March 4 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. 

BYU has had six different leading scorers in its last six games — from six different players — Pepperdine (Spencer Johnson), Pacific (Brandon Averette), Portland (Gideon George), Gonzaga (Alex Barcello), Pacific (Caleb Lohner) and LMU (Haarms).  

What a weekend Lohner had. The freshman forward averaged 18.5 points and eight rebounds in the wins over Pacific and LMU. In the two games, he made 12 of 18 field goals, including 7 of 9 from 3-point range. 

Barcello and Averette combined to score 54 points in last weekend’s games and they combined for 20 assists compared to only five turnovers. 

“Alex and Brandon were great on this road trip,” Pope said. “If they can keep going that direction and we can keep getting better in that area, we have a chance to be really good.”

Going into the Pacific contest last Thursday, BYU was coming off a 10-day layoff from playing games. After a weekend sweep, the Cougars are looking forward to finishing the regular season strong. 

“We’re excited to get back home and get back to work. We’ve got our work cut out for us next week,” Pope said. “It doesn’t get easier from here; it just gets harder. But that’s what you want. That’s what you’re looking for.”