PROVO — In the first game this season fans were allowed into the Marriott Center, BYU’s Alex Barcello provided a memorable performance that made the long, long wait worthwhile.
And the Cougars needed it, as even with Barcello’s heroics, San Francisco pushed BYU to the limit.
The senior guard scored a career-high 29 points and knocked down a school-record 7 of 7 3-pointers in BYU’s 79-73 victory Thursday night.
“Alex is gnarly, dude. It was so fun. Man, he’s good. He was hitting shots. It was super fun to be on the court with him,” said freshman forward Caleb Lohner, who scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds. “It’s fun to be in the background, too, seeing him put in extra work shooting the ball and being in practice with him and then seeing some of that stuff translate to the game. Him having a game like that is awesome.”
Barcello, who made 10 of 13 field goals and dished out five assists, was inspired by the crowd — less than 2,000 — in the stands.
“When I banged my first 3, I kind of shot an arrow up in the stands,” he said. “It gave me a flashback of last year when we had Cougar Nation behind the hoop. Everyone was going nuts, people have signs, just the energy was amazing.”
With the win, BYU (18-5, 9-3) all but clinched the No. 2 seed in the upcoming West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas. USF (10-11, 4-7) dropped its fifth consecutive game.
Still, every time the Cougars started to pull away, the Dons would hit a 3 or go on a run to cut the deficit. USF made 6 of its first 24 3-point attempts but finished the game making 6 of their final 9 3s.
USF’s Julian Rishwain poured in a team-high 25 points and drilled five 3-pointers.
“I have such a great group of guys around me. I really give credit to them. They found me for some wide open catch-and-shoot 3s. Guys were making the extra pass, being unselfish.” — Alex Barcello
BYU outshot San Francisco by a large margin (58.8% to 38.3%) from the floor, yet it was a relatively close game. That’s partly because USF took more shots from the floor (60-51) and had more trips to the free-throw line (21-12) than the Cougars.
BYU had 12 turnovers and the Dons scored 17 points off those giveaways.
In the second half, BYU saw leads of 13 points and 16 points dwindle. After a Cougar turnover and a 3-pointer by Khalil Shabazz, the Dons cut the deficit to four points, 77-73, with 22.8 seconds remaining.
“This San Francisco team gives us fits at the end of games,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said.
Fittingly, Barcello hit a pair of free throws with 21.6 seconds left to put USF away for good.
As impressive as Barcello’s shooting and scoring was, there was a certain number that especially impressed Pope.
“Alex Barcello, with as much as he had the ball in his hands, he had zero turnovers,” Pope said. “That’s because as soon as he caught it, he just shot it because he knew he was going to hit every single shot. That’s a huge performance from Alex Barcello in terms of protecting the ball. … His ability and physicality to protect the ball down the stretch late in the game was massively important.”
Pope had a feeling that Barcello would have a big night, explaining that Barcello didn’t miss a shot Thursday morning during shootaround. That continued Thursday night.
“Every shot he shot with more and more arc,” Pope said. “He was shooting higher and higher so all the fans could take it in. It was amazing.”
Barcello broke the school record for most 3-pointers without a miss. Before him, both Brock Zylstra in 2012 and Nate Call in 1991 hit 6 of 6 from 3 in a game.
“I have such a great group of guys around me,” Barcello said. “I really give credit to them. They found me for some wide open catch-and-shoot 3s. Guys were making the extra pass, being unselfish.”
It took a little while for the Cougars to get accustomed to playing in front of fans again.
“The gym sure felt weird the first 10 minutes. It’s such a different energy and we’re so incredibly grateful for it,” Pope said. “People were reacting to plays and there were cheers. It’s been a long time since we’ve had people in the gym.”
Lohner had a gnarly two-handed dunk on a fast break in the first half that was worth the price of admission.
“After Spencer (Johnson) got the steal, we were going down the court and I was like, ‘Give it to me!’” Lohner said. “It was my first time playing in the Marriott Center with more than 200 people in it. The crowd went crazy and I was all smiles. It was fun.”
On the night, Gideon George scored 11 points and pulled down six rebounds. Brandon Averette had 10 points and five assists before fouling out.
In the end, BYU fans left the Marriott Center happy — happy to be back in the building, happy to see a career night by Barcello and happy to see another Cougar win.
“It was beautiful,” Pope said, “to have people in the building.”
BYU hosts Saint Mary’s Saturday night.