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How fifth-seeded BYU is embracing an unfamiliar role in the WCC Tournament

The Cougars have been playing for their NCAA Tournament life for a while now. Will that help them come WCC tourney time

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BYU head coach Mark Pope calls out from the bench during game against Pepperdine at the Marriott Center in Provo.

BYU head coach Mark Pope calls out from the bench during game against Pepperdine at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

This is uncharted territory for BYU men’s basketball.

Before this year, the Cougars had never been worse than a No. 3 seed in the West Coast Conference Tournament. 

But this year, BYU (21-9, 9-6) is the No. 5 seed

The Cougars face the winner of Thursday’s first-round game between No. 8 Loyola Marymount and No. 9 Pacific in Las Vegas.

“We get to go play Friday. That’s not a space we’ve occupied, maybe ever,” said coach Mark Pope. “But right now for us, for the last month, we’ve got to find a way to win a game. I do like our trend, I do like our momentum. … I think our effort and focus on the defensive end is growing. I think we’re trending right. We need to be because it’s time now. We’ve got to go win.”

If BYU wins Friday, it would likely meet No. 4 San Francisco Saturday in the quarterfinals, and it would be an all-important Quad 1 game.

A win over San Francisco in the quarterfinals would certainly strengthen BYU’s NCAA Tournament resume. How much? That remains to be seen.

The winner of that quarterfinal game meets top-ranked and No. 1 seed Gonzaga in Monday’s semifinals. 

The WCC championship game is scheduled for Tuesday night. (BYU hasn’t won a conference tournament title in 21 years.)

After the Cougars beat Pepperdine last Saturday in the regular-season finale, on Senior Night, senior guard Te’Jon Lucastold the crowd at the Marriott Center, “We’re going to keep fighting to the end. We’re going to do our best to bring home a conference tournament championship next week. It’s just like I said at the beginning of the year — it’s going to be a movie. Our destiny is in our hands. It’s not over.”

First, BYU would need to get through either LMU or Pacific. The Cougars edged the Lions 83-82 in overtime in Los Angeles on Feb. 10. BYU had to rally from a 17-point second-half deficit to keep its slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive. 

The Cougars had an easier time last week in Provo in a 79-59 victory, although LMU was playing without forward Keli Leaupepe, who scored 26 points against BYU in the earlier matchup. 

“In the end of February and at the beginning of March, all of March, anything can happen.” — BYU guard Alex Barcello

Meanwhile, BYU suffered its most devastating loss of the season on Jan. 29 in Stockton when it fell, stunningly, to Pacific, 76-73. The Tigers entered the game ranked No. 303 in the NCAA’s NET rankings (the Cougars were No. 28) and they had lost seven consecutive games. 

In that game, Pacific was playing without its second-leading scorer, Luke Avdalovic. 

That loss to the Tigers seriously damaged BYU’s NCAA Tournament hopes and it was part of a four-game losing streak.

BYU split the season series with USF. The Cougars rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to beat the Dons in San Francisco. Then on Feb. 3, USF defeated BYU 73-59

Certainly, the Cougars have a big challenge ahead of them. But they are embracing that challenge. 

“In the end of February and at the beginning of March, all of March, anything can happen,” said senior guard Alex Barcello. “We’re not in the position we wanted to be right now, but this past week, beating LMU by 20 and beating (Pepperdine) by double digits, that’s hard to do, however good the team is at the end of February and March, because every team is fighting for their lives, whether they’re at the top of their conference, bottom of the conference, whether they’re ranked in the top 25.

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BYU guard Alex Barcello looks for an open man as BYU plays Loyola Marymount play at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“Everybody’s fighting for their lives. We just want to be playing our best basketball right now. That’s what coach preaches to us every day. We’ve got all the belief in our coaching staff with how they’re preparing ourselves. And we have all the belief in ourselves that we’re going to fight and give it 100% when we step out on that floor.”

Freshman Fousseyni Traore, who scored a career-high 25 points and a career-high 19 rebounds against Pepperdine, is confident about what the Cougars can accomplish in Las Vegas. 

“We’re all excited,” he said. “We’re going to do some big thing there. Just wait and see. We will.”

For the past month, every game has been high stakes for BYU because of its precarious position on the NCAA Tournament bubble. 

The Cougars are used to the game-to-game pressure. 

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BYU’s Caleb Lohner grabs a rebound as BYU plays Loyola Marymount at Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“Yeah, especially because we got punched in the face for a few of those games that now, we appreciate the grind. This is hard,” said forward Caleb Lohner. “The guys that are stepping up and playing and really want to win, enjoy that grind. I love it. It’s a challenge. We’re in a position now where every single game matters. Even the points matter. It’s having the same mentality every single game and finding a way to win.”

Clearly, the Cougars are in an unfamiliar position in terms of seeding, but it’s a familiar feeling — they need to win as many games as possible. 

“Landing in fifth is clearly not where we wanted to be. But we’re going to go in and take one game at a time, honestly. I think we’ll probably be one of the scariest fifth-place teams in the conference — in any conference,” Lucas said. “We’ll attack it how we can and prepare for one game at a time now. It’s season three.

“We had nonconference and then conference and so this is season three now. Everyone is 0-0. Win or go home. The good thing about it is, we’ve been playing like that the last couple of weeks. Some teams have to start doing that like, ‘Hey, it’s win or go home now.’ Honestly, we’ve been like our lives are on the line for the last couple of weeks. So this is nothing new for us. And I think we’re going to carry that edge over to Vegas.”