There was a time last fall when nobody was sure if there would be a college basketball season due to the pandemic.

The NCAA pushed back the start a few weeks and BYU, like other programs, had to scramble to rebuild its nonconference schedule as games were canceled, including the Cougars’ multiteam event in the Bahamas.

On the eve of the season opener, athletic director Tom Holmoe announced that the school had extended coach Mark Pope’s contract through the 2026-27 season. Then, somehow, BYU was able to play all 11 of its scheduled nonconference games.

In the end, a season that teetered on the brink of uncertainty certainly produced a season filled with highlights for the Cougars. 

With a roster stocked with plenty of newcomers, BYU surpassed expectations, posting a 20-7 record, earning a No. 23 final national ranking and a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars, who returned to the Big Dance for the first time in six years, fell to UCLA in the first round last weekend at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

That defeat marked the first time in two seasons under Pope that BYU has suffered back-to-back losses.  

Meanwhile, the Cougars ranked in the Top 30 in adjusted offense and adjusted defense, according to KenPom.com. 

Here’s a look back at the unique 2020-21 season, in no particular order: 

End of a dubious streak: For the first time in seven years, BYU finally beat Saint Mary’s in Moraga, California.

In January, a week after a humbling loss at No. 1 Gonzaga in its West Coast Conference opener, the Cougars defeated the Gaels 62-52

BYU locked down defensively against Saint Mary’s over the final 10 minutes, finishing with a stunning 19-2 run. 

‘ABBA’ backcourt: Seniors Alex Barcello and Brandon Averette were dubbed the “ABBA” backcourt and they led the Cougars all season long. 

Averette, who ended up being named to the All-WCC Second Team, was asked during the season about Barcello’s role on the team. Barcello was named an All-WCC First Team selection and an honorable mention All-American. 

“Alex, he’s our engine. He gets us going. He’s always bringing us together, talking to us,” Averette said. “Everything he says is always true. And he gives his all on both ends of the floor. You never question his leadership. He’s a great lead-by-example guy. He brings it every single day. You always hear his voice. I love playing with him.”

Strength of schedule: Five of BYU’s seven losses this season came at the hands of teams that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. 

The Cougars suffered three setbacks to No. 1 Gonzaga, one to USC and one to UCLA. They had wins over NCAA Tournament teams San Diego State, Utah State and Texas Southern.

Beehive State sweep: BYU posted a 5-0 record against in-state teams with wins over Westminster, Utah Valley University, Utah State, Utah and Weber State.

Breakout performance: Gideon George, a native of Nigeria and a junior college transfer, recorded a double-double with 13 points and 15 rebounds in a win over Saint John’s in the Uncasville, Connecticut, bubble in early December. His spark off the bench was needed two days after an embarrassing 79-53 loss to USC.

Game of the year: In the renewal of a longstanding rivalry, BYU traveled to San Diego State in mid-December. 

The Cougars built a 17-point second-half advantage against the No. 18 Aztecs and squandered that lead at Viejas Arena. 

SDSU’s Matt Mitchell scored a career-high 35 points and spearheaded the comeback, tying the game at 61-all with 1:56 left on the clock. 

But Averette knocked down a rainbow 3-pointer with 52 seconds remaining, as part of an 11-1 run to end the game, in a 72-62 victory. 

That win over a ranked team on the road was one of the highlights of the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament resume.

Home game of the year: Coming off a tough loss at Pepperdine, BYU needed a win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive against Pacific. 

The Cougars struggled but pulled off a 95-87 win in double overtime. Seniors Barcello, Matt Haarms and Averette put the team on their back, combining for 60 points. 

The win commemorated Pope’s 50th game at the helm at BYU. 

Best half of the year: Against the No. 1 overall seed, Gonzaga, just days before Selection Sunday, BYU played its best half of the season in the WCC Tournament championship game. 

The Cougars were confident and aggressive in the first half. BYU led by as many as 14 points, 53-39, as it made 21 of 31 shots from the field, including 9 of 13 from 3-point range. Trevin Knell was a catalyst and he finished with a career-high 20 points and five 3-pointers.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few was impressed with what he saw from the Cougars. 

“They really took the fight to us, especially in that first 20 minutes,” Few said. “This is a great game for us. We got punched in the face. I hope that everybody took notice of how good this BYU team is. They have rim protection in Haarms, they have shooters on the perimeter that are starting to shoot the ball well and play better. They have excellent ball screen readers and decision-makers in Barcello and Averette. That’s a very, very, very good basketball team. They pushed us to the brink. I give them a lot of credit.”

Rebounding dominance, by George: In a 105-60 win at Portland, George scored a career-high 19 points and collected 13 rebounds. He outrebounded the Pilots by himself, 13-12. 

Play of the year: In the WCC semifinals against Pepperdine, BYU didn’t play one of its best games. In fact, the Cougars trailed most of the way.

But Spencer Johnson pulled off an impressive defensive play that may have saved the game.

With 16 seconds remaining in overtime, Johnson jumped a passing lane, tipped the ball away from Kessler Edwards and saved the ball with a behind-the-back pass to Connor Harding, who flipped it to Barcello. 

Barcello hit two free throws with 7.7 seconds left to seal a dramatic 82-77 victory.

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Despite disappointing ending in NCAA Tournament, BYU basketball exceeded all expectations this season

Poor starts: In three losses this season, the Cougars dug themselves early holes. 

In a home setback to Boise State, BYU fell behind 14-0 as it failed to score over the first 8 ½ minutes of the game. The Cougars battled back but lost 74-70. 

In the WCC opener at Gonzaga, the Zags built a 23-2 lead, which turned into 30-7. And in BYU’s game against Gonzaga at home, the Cougars found themselves down 15-2 in the game’s opening minutes. 

Transfer portal recruiting coup: Last spring, Haarms, Purdue’s 7-foot-3 rim protector, announced he was entering the transfer portal.

That opened up a fierce recruiting battle among programs all over the nation. Haarms narrowed his final three to Kentucky, Texas Tech and BYU.

Ultimately, the Cougars won out for Haarms’ services as Pope beat out his alma mater, Kentucky. Pope ended up being named WCC Defensive Player of the Year and was voted a member of the All-WCC Second Team. 

Later, another grad transfer, Averette, who previously played at Oklahoma State and Utah Valley University, also chose to sign with BYU.

Freshman recruiting coup: Caleb Lohner signed with Utah in November 2019. But after experiencing a change of heart, he received a release from the Utes before signing with BYU. Lohner led the team in rebounding (7.1 per game) and he earned a spot on the All-WCC Freshman Team. 

While he missed his first 13 3-pointers of his college career, that didn’t seem to bother him at all. He just kept shooting. He made 11 of 16 3-pointers during a stretch late in the season.

Another memorable senior night: A year after BYU upset No. 2 Gonzaga on senior night in front of a sellout crowd, the Cougars had a different kind of senior night.

After its win against Saint Mary’s, before a crowd of about 2,000, Pope made an impromptu move — honoring seniors Barcello, Haarms and Averette with a speech and then handing the microphone to them to address the crowd.  

No pauses: While BYU had games postponed, or canceled, during the season, none of those issues came from within the program. 

How did the Cougars do that?

“My guys have no social life whatsoever. They’re pretty boring dudes that like to hoop and go to school,” Pope said. “We don’t really get exposed … We’ve been really fortunate.”

Pope added, “We’re not letting COVID take another tournament away from us. It can’t happen.”

Director of basketball operations Bobby Horodyski tweeted this week, “Looking back we played 27 games. Had 0 pauses for Covid on our end. Must take a moment to thank our amazing medical staff that made this possible for our guys!!! I just did a rough count and I think I tested for Covid 78 times throughout the season.”

urn that plane around: During BYU’s charter flight from Provo to Southern California Dec. 30, on the eve of the WCC opener at Pepperdine, Pope received a phone call from deputy athletic director Brian Santiago. 

Santiago had just received word the Cougars’ game was being postponed due to COVID-19. He told Pope to tell the pilot to turn the plane around and return to Provo — which he did.

Last-minute schedule changes: BYU had several WCC games rescheduled due to the pandemic. In early January, after seeing three games postponed, the Cougars and Zags moved up one of their meetings to early January, the WCC-opener for both teams.

For BYU, it ended a 15-day layoff from games.

“When everything else fails, the one coach and program in America that you know is going to be like, ‘Bring it, man, we’re not scared,’ is the Zags,” Pope said. “I couldn’t love them more right now just for the fact that they’re like, ‘Let’s play.’ We desperately want to play and they desperately want to play.”

Season-ending injuries: Gavin Baxter suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season, one night after he hit 5 of 5 shots, grabbed six rebounds and had one block and two assists in the season opener against Westminster. 

In January, Wyatt Lowell tore his Achilles in a loss at Gonzaga. That was after working diligently to come back from major shoulder surgery during the summer.  

Perfect records: Haarms made a perfect 9 of 9 from the floor and 4 of 4 from the free throw line in a win over Portland. He set a school record for most field goals made in a game without a miss set by Cougar legend Kresimir Cosic in 1971, when he went 12 of 12 from the field.

Against San Francisco, Barcello scored a career-high 29 points and set a new school record by hitting 7 of 7 shots from 3-point range. 

Depth defined: During an eight-game stretch near the end of the season, the Cougars were led in scoring by seven different players — Barcello, Haarms, Lohner, George, Averette, Johnson and Knell. 

Hammer time for Harward: Forward Richard Harward scored 11 points in the second half in a big win at San Francisco. During one stretch, he scored eight straight points, including two put-back dunks. that helped the Cougars pull away. He finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

Play of the year II: On a fast break in the first half against San Francisco in the first game with fans allowed at the Marriott Center this season, Lohner had a rim-rattling two-handed dunk 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.”

Mysterious personnel move: Junior forward Kolby Lee opened the season as a starter, then was relegated to the bench as Lohner and George emerged. But he remained a key contributor. 

By the end of the season, Lee rarely played. Over the final 10 games, however, he played a total of just 20 minutes and scored eight points. 

Viral videos: Though BYU played only one game in the NCAA Tournament, it received plenty of national attention while holed up in an Indianapolis hotel thanks to a couple of videos that went viral in the tournament bubble.

One video showed players and coaches being introduced and hyped before taking their daily COVID-19 tests. Another featured guard Jesse Wade being rescued from an elevator that had gotten stuck in the hotel.

“Scariest moment of my life but I knew the boys had my back,” Wade tweeted.

Unfortunately for the Cougars, those were the biggest highlights for them in the NCAA Tournament. 

That aside, there were many highlights during the season. In the middle of a pandemic, BYU enjoyed a memorable, successful campaign.