With a game abruptly canceled earlier in the week and four long days on the road, BYU coach Mark Pope apparently capitalized on having some spare time and decided to tinker with his starting lineup.
Before Thursday’s game at Portland, Pope moved junior Gideon George and freshman Caleb Lohner from roles off the bench to starter status in place of Trevin Knell and Kolby Lee.
And in his first career start, George enjoyed a career night at the Chiles Center.
“He’s been so wonderful for our team. He’s growing. He’s done a good job taking advantage of the opportunities that he’s had. Clearly, we’ve known for a long time that he’s got a huge ceiling. This is another real positive step for him.” — BYU coach Mark Pope on Gideon George
The 6-foot-6 native of Nigeria scored a career-high 19 points, on 8-of-12 shooting from the floor, collected 13 rebounds, had three assists, grabbed two steals and had zero turnovers — in just 21 minutes of action.
George outrebounded the Pilots by himself, 13-12, as part of an almost flawless team performance as the Cougars pulverized the Pilots 105-60.
“He’s been so wonderful for our team. He’s growing. He’s done a good job taking advantage of the opportunities that he’s had,” Pope told the BYU Radio Network. “Clearly, we’ve known for a long time that he’s got a huge ceiling. This is another real positive step for him. He’s a joy to have in every facet of our program.”
It marked George’s second career double-double as a Cougar. He had 13 points and 15 rebounds against St. John’s back in December. George is simply living his dream.
“Back home in Nigeria, I used to stay up all night to watch NCAA games and NBA games,” George said. “Being able to play here right now is like a blessing for me and my friends watching me back home. I’m not taking anything for granted.”
George found out Wednesday that he would be starting. What did Pope tell him?
“He just wanted me to rebound the ball and just play basketball,” George said. “I was ready to go.”
Yes, he was. In the first half, he scored 10 points and pulled down six boards.
For Lohner, it was his fifth career start and his first since December. He had one of his best games of the season, contributing 11 points (on 4-of-5 shooting) and grabbing six rebounds.
Pope got the production he was looking for from Lohner and George when he switched up the starting lineup, knowing a huge showdown with No. 1 Gonzaga at the Marriott Center looms Monday night.
“It’s kind of that point in the season where these newer guys, it’s time for them to step up,” Pope said. “There was some thought about the rescheduling of the Zags game coming up and some thought about the progress that they’ve been making and some thought about the opportunity they had to get a feel for starting a game. I was super proud of those guys for responding.”
BYU, coming off a thrilling double-overtime win over Pacific last Saturday before seeing Tuesday’s game at San Diego canceled hours before tipoff, made up for some lost time. The Cougars took out some frustration on lowly Portland.
BYU (15-4, 6-2) dominated this game in every way possible.
The Cougars outrebounded the Pilots 46-12.
“We were terrific rebounding the ball as a group,” Pope said.
BYU outscored Portland in the paint 48-16. The Cougars shot 63% overall from the floor and knocked down 15 of 24 3-pointers. And they had 22 assists on 42 made baskets.
OK, now we interrupt this analysis to put this BYU win in perspective.
Portland (6-11, 0-8) has now lost nine consecutive games overall. The beleaguered Pilots are now 1-48 in their last 49 games against West Coast Conference opponents. BYU has now won 11 straight over Portland, dating back to 2016.
Still, the Cougars did what they needed to do — and then some.
Including George and Lohner, BYU saw six players score in double figures. Matt Haarms finished with 15 points and six rebounds. After making all nine of his field goals in last month’s win over Portland, he went 6 of 9 from the floor Thursday.
Brandon Averette also recorded 15 points and dished out five assists. Alex Barcello had 12 points, three rebounds and four assists. Connor Harding added 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field. Knell scored nine points on 3 of 4 3-pointers and collected five rebounds. Spencer Johnson had eight points, including a pair of 3s.
BYU broke the game open early with a 10-0 run that included 3s by Haarms and Knell that gave it a 23-11 advantage. The Cougars closed out the half on a 14-0 run to take a 52-30 lead into the locker room at halftime. At that point, BYU had hit 20 of 30 shots from the field, including 7 of 11 from 3.
In the second half, the Cougars kept pulling away from Portland and eventually led by as many as 47.
George’s performance was certainly a good sign for a BYU team eyeing its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years.
Two of George’s stats that stood out most to Pope? First, no turnovers.
“That was my favorite number of the night,” Pope said. “We’ve spent a lot of time — him and me and coach (Nick) Robinson together — watching all of his minutes in every game, breaking down every single second on the floor. We’ve been emphasizing three things. The most important of those is, if he can take care of this ball, it’s going to broaden his minutes. He’s been really working at it, trying to make good decisions on the court and certainly he did tonight. Zero turnovers is a spectacular number that’s super important for our team.”
The other impressive number? George outrebounding Portland by himself, 13-12.
“I’ve never seen that stat in my life,” Pope said. “He out-rebounded the whole (other) team by one. That’s incredible. He was spectacular tonight.”