Silence can say a lot and four years ago this week, it was screaming the unimaginable as the BYU basketball team learned it would not be participating in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.

It wasn’t that the Cougars weren’t deserving. Just the opposite. BYU had 25 wins and was ranked No. 14 just before Saint Mary’s eliminated the Cougars 51-50 on a buzzer-beater in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament.

“It was such a hard thing. We felt like we were on the up and up and feeling like we were ready to make a run in the tournament. For it to end like that was something, to this day, that I don’t know if I’ve processed.”

—  BYU guard TJ Haws on learning the 2020 NCAA Tournament had been cancelled

The Cougars returned to Provo to prepare for the NCAA Tournament when the news hit at 2:16 p.m. on March 12.

“We were up in the team room sitting around talking,” former BYU point guard TJ Haws told the “Y’s Guys” podcast. “We had just finished practice, and no one had their phones. I think (head coach) Pope got a text or saw a tweet. I remember him saying, ‘Guys, the tournament is cancelled!’”

Stunned. The room went quiet.

“We sat there for 10 to 15 minutes in complete silence,” Haws said. “No one knew what to say. Nobody was talking. It was like, ‘Is this real? Is this really happening?’”

COVID-19 strikes

Fear of the unknown surrounding COVID-19 had already led to the cancellation of the NBA, Major League Soccer and NHL seasons. NCAA officials and CBS were still considering moving forward with the tournament, but without fans in attendance. A short time later, the Big Dance was called off altogether.

“We were thinking at the time that it would be the worst — no fans?” Haws said. “It was a bummer. But looking back at it, that would have been fine, considering.”

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The news hit Haws especially hard. Not only had he started all 133 games of his college career and scored 1,899 points, his last shot at making the tournament was gone — and there was nothing he could do about it.

“It was such a hard thing. We felt like we were on the up and up and feeling like we were ready to make a run in the tournament,” Haws said. “For it to end like that was something, to this day, that I don’t know if I’ve processed.”

Team on a mission

BYU ripped through February with a perfect 8-0 record, including an 81-79 home win against Saint Mary’s, where Haws hit the winning 3-point shot with 16 seconds left. Immediately after the game, he left the Marriott Center to join his wife Lauren, who was in labor with their first child.

Three weeks later, the new father scored 16 points and had eight assists in BYU’s 91-78 upset of No. 2 Gonzaga.

“That team was so special, and those guys were so much fun to be with,” Haws said. “With Yoeli (Childs) inside, who could score at will, and we were shooting over 40% as a team from the 3, it was like pick your poison. We really felt like we could beat anybody.”

The back seat

Haws had a high school career that was decorated with four 5A state championships at Lone Peak, including the MaxPreps national title in 2013. The following year, Haws was named the Deseret News Mr. Basketball and the Utah Gatorade Player of the Year, but when it comes to NCAA tournaments, he will always ride in the back seat of the family car.

Marty, TJ’s father, reached the Big Dance three times at BYU, while TJ’s older brother Tyler did one better. He played in four NCAA tournaments while becoming the Cougars’ all-time leading scorer.

“That last one was rough because I felt like I was going to go farther (in the tournament) than both those guys,” Haws said. “I was going to end up on top in the family. We can just imagine that was the case.”

Looking familiar

BYU fans cheer as the UCF Knights and the BYU Cougars meet in college basketball action at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Watching this year’s team, as a former player, fan and BYUtv basketball analyst, Haws sees a lot of similarities to his group in 2020.

“This team shoots the ball extremely well and they get a lot of shots off and that feels very similar to what we had,” he said. “You could go down the list, everybody could shoot the 3 and that’s what made us hard to guard, and that’s what makes this team hard to guard.”

The 2024 Cougars finished their first regular season in the Big 12 as the leader in points (82.2) and made 3-point shots per game (11.3). Seven players have 27 or more made 3-pointers, with Jaxson Robinson leading the way with 70.

“They do so well moving off the ball and that opens up shooters all over the place and everyone can shoot and everyone trusts each other,” Haws said. “Coming from a player’s perspective, it’s special to see how much these guys trust each other. I feel like we had that on our team too.”

No shining moment

Haws remains No. 7 all-time at BYU in points. He is No. 3 with 242 made 3-point shots and is tied with Jimmer Fredette with 47 games of making at least three 3-pointers. In addition, Haws is No. 2 all-time in assists (603) and No. 8 in steals (158 steals).

However, when it came to making noise in an NCAA Tournament, Haws never made any. There is no “One Shining Moment” in his memory bank. Instead, he will forever have those unforgettable minutes of hard silence that followed Pope’s deflating declaration, “Guys, the tournament is cancelled.”

BYU guards McKay Cannon and TJ Haws celebrate as BYU scores against the Saint Mary's Gaels during the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas on Monday, March 5, 2018. | Ravell Call, Deseret News