KANSAS CITY — BYU coach Mark Pope admitted that before the Cougars’ first-ever Big 12 basketball tournament game that the UCF Knights were giving him nightmares, due to their length, athleticism, defensive ability and ability to score in spurts, as they did a month ago in Provo.

“Well, I think BYU played a really good game. They started off hot, really shot the 3-ball well to start off in the first half, something they have done well all season long.”

—  UCF coach Johnny Dawkins

Then BYU went out and did what BYU does to ensure their coach gets a good night’s sleep in Kansas City.

Using balanced scoring, the usual 3-point shooting that has come to define this 20th-ranked team and some remarkable resiliency when UCF threatened to make a game of it multiple times in the second half, the Cougars rolled out to an 87-73 win at T-Mobile Center to advance to Thursday’s quarterfinals.

BYU (23-9) will face Texas Tech at 10:30 a.m. MDT Thursday on ESPN2 after defeating the Knights (17-15) for the third time in both schools’ first season in the Big 12.

“It was an awesome win, because of how we did it,” sophomore super sub Richie Saunders said.

How the Cougars did it was how they’ve done it all season.

They unleashed a torrid 3-point shooting display, finishing 14 of 30 from deep (47%). They took care of the ball — committing only 10 turnovers — against one of the country’s best teams at forcing turnovers. And they were as balanced as ever in the scoring department.

To wit: Fouss Traore led the way with 14 points, followed by Saunders and Dallin Hall, who had 13 apiece. Trevin Knell chipped in 12, while Noah Waterman and Spencer Johnson had nine apiece and Jaxson Robinbson and Aly Khalifa eight apiece. That’s eight guys with eight or more points.

“We play for each other,” said Traore, who added 10 rebounds and three blocked shots to another solid stat line. “We don’t have any selfish guys.”

UCF took a different offensive approach, as Darius Johnson scored 19 of his tournament-high 32 points (to date) in the second half to almost singlehandedly keep the Knights in it. Antwann Jones added 13 and Jaylin Sellers 12.

“Well, I think BYU played a really good game,” UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. “They started off hot, really shot the 3-ball well to start off in the first half, something they have done well all season long.”

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Indeed, the Cougars never trailed, jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead on a pair of 3s by Khalifa and solo treys by Hall and Knell. Khalifa also made some nifty passes during the first half, finishing with five assists and no turnovers and introducing himself to a postseason crowd as one of the best passing centers in the country.

All on an empty stomach.

A devout Muslim, Khalifa ate breakfast at 4:30 a.m. — delivered by former BYU star Nate Austin, now on the Cougars’ support staff — and began fasting at sunrise to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“I didn’t think I would hold up that well, to be honest. I had never experienced it before. I just went in and just went for it. The first four minutes, I was really excited. I have never played (while) fasting before. It kinda showed when I hit the first two 3s and had a couple of assists, or whatever,” Khalifa said.

He played 17 minutes, and admitted to being “tired and thirsty, towards the end.”

But he persevered, as did the Cougars when UCF made the run that everybody knew was coming in the second half. Johnson’s 3-pointer with 13:40 remaining cut the Knights’ deficit to 59-56, and UCF got the ball back on the same possession when Knell was whistled for a foul.

BYU’s defense held UCF scoreless on its next six possessions — Spencer Johnson drawing a charge on Darius Johnson was the highlight — and BYU went on a 12-0 run to regain control.

“Because we protected the ball, we were able to do what we do offensively and push it in transition or get into our half-court sets,” Saunders said. “Every second half, the focus is, ‘we are going to win this thing on the defensive end.’”

Saunders hit back-to-back 3-pointers between the six-minute mark and the five-minute mark to pretty much seal it, the second 3 answered Darius Johnson’s 3-point play and gave BYU an 80-65 lead.

Another key was how Hall, who picked up his second foul with 10:15 remaining in the first half and spent the latter half of the half on the bench, only got one more foul the rest of the the way. How big is Hall to BYU’s offense. BYU was plus-17 with the sophomore on the floor in the first half, plus-21 in the game.

Facing UCF’s relentless pressure defense, and constant yapping, Hall had four assists and two turnovers.

“He did what Dallin Hall does. He just stepped up and made a couple huge shots. His ball protection under incredible duress was fantastic. I thought he was really special that way,” Pope said.

Spencer Johnson played a superb floor game, adding eight rebounds and seven assists to his nine points.

Robinson had a quiet game, by his standards, but contributed defensively to keep all the Knights not named Darius Johnson in check.

“It was a great team win,” Robinson said. “Not a lot of people can say they went 3-0 against UCF.”

Added Khalifa: “They are the most physical team I have ever played against. They are really physical, really long and athletic, and they are No. 12 in defensive rating in KenPom, or whatever. They are a really good defensive team. That’s how they win games. But we showed that when we play on our toes, nobody can guard us.”

And Mark Pope can stop having nightmares.

BYU guard Dallin Hall) celebrates the win over UCF during the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. BYU won 87-73. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News