BYU coach Mark Pope likes to compare games in the West Coast Conference to in-state battles.
They’re physical, they’re intense and if you hope to survive, there can be no prolonged emotional letdowns. And it requires a complete team effort.
The Cougars and San Diego played in one of those contests Thursday night at the Marriott Center.
One particular sequence, an unlikely one, helped propel BYU in the second half against the Toreros.
With 12:07 remaining, Cougar freshman Atiki Ally Atiki and USD’s Wayne McKinney scrapped for a loose ball under the basket and both players fell to the floor. After they got back on their feet, Ally Atiki shoved McKinney as they made their way back down court. Ally Atiki was whistled for a technical foul and was ejected from the game.
BYU seemed to play even more inspired basketball after that, and went on to defeat USD 79-71.
With the win, the Cougars improved to 16-4 overall and 4-1 in the WCC. The Toreros dropped to 10-8 and 3-2.
“I know he got ejected but I thought that gave us a whole lot of energy as a team, just knowing that he’s there to fight,” said guard Alex Barcello, who finished with a game-high 22 points. “Coach told us that in the locker room after the game. He’s there to fight for his guys. We were building off that, energy-wise.”
Following McKinney’s technical free throws and a made basket, BYU went on a 15-6 run to take a 62-50 advantage.
Also in the second half, it helped that BYU shot 69% from the field (18 of 26), after shooting just 33% in the first half. The two teams went into their respective locker rooms at intermission tied at 31 apiece.
Again, as in most hotly contested conference games, there were plenty of key moments, key stretches and key plays.
In the first half, Seneca Knight came off the bench to score eight consecutive points, including back-to-back 3-pointers, giving the Cougars their first lead of the night. Knight ended up matching his season-high with 14 points but he made major contributions on the defensive end, too.
“Seneca at the three was important for us defensively. He was really terrific handling that physicality,” said coach Mark Pope. “He helped us out in transition and handling the ball. He actually made several plays in the second half that didn’t lead to scores for him but led to plays for other guys. I thought he was terrific tonight.”
“Seneca provided a great amount of energy in the first half,” Barcello said. “He was really finding his spots and hitting shots.”
With 7:32 remaining in the half, a wicked Barcello crossover sent his defender, Bryce Monroe, tumbling to the floor. Then Barcello calmly sank the jumper.
“They’re really satisfying,” Barcello of those types of plays. “It gets the crowd into it a little bit more. It gets your teammates into it a little bit more. It lightens up the mood with everything that’s going on in the game. I like to have fun with it. We put in so much work and whenever those plays come up, it’s fun to kind of rock with it and have fun with the emotion.”
With 2:27 on the clock in the second half, Barcello buried a 25-foot 3-pointer that put the Cougars up 73-63.
At one point in the second half, after getting hammered with no call, Barcello just looked incredulously at the referee.
“With how these teams are guarding me right now,” Barcello said, “I’ve got to work a lot harder to get open shots. Just create for myself and my teammates.”
Then there’s freshman Fousseyni Traore, who recorded a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Traore continued to make strides Thursday, snatching rebounds out of thin air, blocking shots, making nifty, veteran moves around the rim to score.
“Clearly, on the glass he’s so impressive,” Pope said of Traore. “This game feels slow to him as a freshman. It’s unbelievable. He just doesn’t get sped up very often … The numbers speak for themselves.”
“He’s so fun to play with,” Barcello said of Traore. “He deserves everything that’s coming to him. I love how he comes in every day at practice to work and listen to his coaches and teammates.”
Early in the second half, the two teams traded baskets and the game was knotted at 40-40 at the 14:38 mark when BYU forward Gideon George scored seven straight points to give the Cougars a 47-40 lead, just before Ally Atiki’s ejection.
George finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
Pope described what he saw as the biggest defensive play of the second half, from guard Te’Jon Lucas, which came with 13:41 left.
“Right in front of our courtside seats, Te’Jon Lucas just took McKinney’s ball like in a wrestling match. He just took it,” Pope said. “That was a forceful message to our whole team. It changed the dynamic of the game. We talk about making plays on defense all the time. And Te’Jon just said, ‘I’m gonna make a play.’ It was a physical play and the guys fed off it.”
Said Barcello: “Our energy comes from our defensive end. We really saw that in the second half.”
Pope also praised the efforts inside of Traore and Ally Atiki, who spent a big chunk of their day in class or in study hall.
“It’s unbelievable what these two are doing. In a real sense, they’re going a long way toward saving Alex’s senior year and our season,” Pope said. “They’ve been thrust into this really difficult situation and they’re ringing the bell. It’s pretty awesome. I can’t say enough good things about those young men.”
BYU hosts Portland Saturday.
TIP-INS: BYU is now 11-0 all-time against USD at the Marriott Center … The Cougars outrebounded the Toreros 38-38 … Lucas scored nine points and had four assists … The Toreros’ top scorer, Marcellus Earlington, finished with 12 points on 4 of 12 shooting while Jase Townsend scored a team-high 14 points.