Live by the 3?

BYU found its line of life in Kansas City on Wednesday.

The No. 5 seed 23-9 Cougars rained and rained again from distance in their 87-73 win over No. 12 UCF (17-15) in the second round of the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City.

The deluge came early and late.

They came on fast breaks, they came from set plays, they came when cross-eyed UCF defenders simply got caught watching the game.

They came from 7-foot Aly Khalifa, point guard Dallin Hall and off-the-bench energy bunny Richie Saunders, and every needed contributor in between.

BYU hit four bombs in the first seven minutes to lead 14-0.

That torrential armament stunned UCF, winner of four of their last six games.

Everyone who knows basketball understands BYU needs the 3 to beat Big 12 teams. It is the big equalizer versus more talented players who are quicker and longer.

But nobody expected the Cougars to make 7 of 15 in the first half, and finish the game making 14 of 30.

It was a serving UCF couldn’t digest.

No team had made double-digit 3s against UCF in 13 games and nobody had made 14 all year.

BYU’s 14 was poison.

Saunders told reporters after the game it all worked because BYU protected the ball. In a nail-biter in Provo, BYU had 17 turnovers against UCF. This time, they had nine until the squad held the ball and let the shot clock run out with 20 seconds left.

3 keys to BYU’s win over UCF in the Cougars’ first-ever Big 12 basketball tournament game

“Just really it’s predicting the ball is the first thing that comes to my mind,” said Saunders. “Because we predicted the ball, we were able to do what we do offensively and either pushing the transition or getting to our half-court sets, which we like to use to get open shots, which we thrive on.”

Playing against one of the league’s most athletically gifted, shot-blocking and rebounding teams, BYU buried 14 of 30 buckets from beyond the arc, an amazing 47%. The quick-draw success led to an 18-point early lead and killed the Knights late when UCF tried to rally like they did in Provo.

Head coach Mark Pope said the game was successful because his players kept playing defense and kept aggressive on offense, playing on their toes and refusing to back down when UCF defenders came at them.

“I’m proud of the way this team kept aggressive,” he said.

BYU completed the 3-0 sweep of UCF by holding off a furious Knights comeback that saw BYU’s massive first-half lead cut to nine at the half, 47-38, then to just three at 59-56 with just over 13 minutes to play.

UCF’s fortunes turned at that moment when Fouss Traore blocked a shot at the rim.

But huge bombs by Hall and Saunders fired up a BYU 15-3 run in which the Cougars outscored UCF 28-17. The Cougar defense then stiffened and absorbed a 32-point performance by UCF’s Darius Johnson.

Hall played incredibly well with no turnovers against intense pressure until BYU played hot potato in the closing seconds, holding out for the shot clock to wind down.

Saunders ended the game dishing out dagger 3s.

But it was BYU’s centers, Khalifa and Traore, who made UCF’s pressure defense pay. Khalifa forced UCF’s big-shot blockers Ibrahima Diallo and Thierno Sylla away from the rim on defense, where Khalifa made a pair of 3s. Diallo, who had a double-double in a win over Oklahoma State the night before, managed zero points and zero rebounds.

For the record, Trevin Knell hit both of his 3-point attempts. Hall was 3 of 7 from distance, and Saunders made 3 of his 4 3-pointers. Big 12 “Six Man of the Year” Jaxson Robinson was 2 for 5 from downtown as Noah Waterman hit 1 of 3 and Johnson 1 of 5.

Two of Saunders’ longshots were in transition, where UCF’s defense was caught like scrambled eggs on a grill.

The game was a contrast of UCF’s one-on-one, put-head-down-and-drive style and BYU’s moving, shifting, cutting, pop and pass shooting 3-point attack.

Now reality.

BYU may have had its best 3-point shooting game of the year against the Knights. They now face Texas Tech, a team they yielded a lead to in a loss in Lubbock.

If BYU does not bury the long ball against the Red Raiders on Thursday morning, they could as easily lose as win.

It’s all about the 3 with this team.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Spencer Johnson (20) drives against UCF Knights guard Jaylin Sellers (24) during the Big 12 conference championship in Kansas City on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. BYU won 87-73. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News