OMAHA — Senior Spencer Johnson, one of the most articulate players on the BYU basketball team the past four seasons, was at a total loss for words.

Why, the new father was asked after playing his final college basketball game, are the Cougars often not themselves when they reach postseason play?

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Johnson said about 20 minutes after BYU’s special first season in the Big 12 was unceremoniously ended by a Duquesne team that was more ready for the NCAA Tournament’s big stage than the supposedly older, more mature Cougars.

Then Johnson asked fellow senior Jaxson Robinson if he had a good answer for the question, but Robinson — who would later say that he’s not sure whether he will return to BYU next year or throw his name into the NBA draft — was also speechless.


For the second-straight game, the Cougars got off to an abysmal start Thursday against the Dukes. And just like in the team’s eventual 81-67 loss to Texas Tech last week in the Big 12 tournament, staggering out of the blocks led to their demise, despite a spirited comeback.

“We just kept hurting ourselves,” Johnson lamented.

He grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds in the game, while Robinson chipped in 25 points, but for the two team leaders, the suddenness of it all was still sinking in.

That’s the thing about the Big Dance. For all the shining moments and jubilation and spellbinding stories that emerge — like Duquesne’s bonding over a retiring coach — for the losers, there is an utter emptiness that lingers for months.

“This is incredibly painful, but I know how this goes,” coach Mark Pope said. “It will dissipate to some degree and will be replaced with an insane amount of gratitude for these guys sitting here (Johnson and Robinson), and what they’ve dedicated to each other and to BYU, and the things they were able to accomplish this year. And that will stay with us forever.”

Brigham Young Cougars forward Fousseyni Traore (45) listens to coaches during a timeout during the game between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Duquesne Dukes in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at the CHI Health Center in Omaha on Thursday, March 21, 2024. The Brigham Young Cougars lost the game 71-67. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Media members are allowed into locker rooms at NCAA Tournament games, and the scene inside BYU’s was as somber as imaginable. Richie Saunders could barely get words out, taking some time to collect his thoughts. Trevin Knell stayed in a corner, a towel draped over his face.

Remnants of a bloody nose still evident a couple hours after he took an elbow to the face moments into the game, point guard Dallin Hall tried to make sense of it all.

“I have been a part of (tough season-ending losses) in high school, junior high, when you exit early,” Hall said. “Coach said, ‘You guys aren’t going to get a lot of what I say, because there are so many emotions.’

“This is a devastating loss, but he was proud of what we accomplished this year, and we are going to learn from it.”

Hall called the bloodied nose “just part of the game,” and said he would be fine.

Hall returned to the game a couple minutes after taking the elbow, but finished the first half with just two points and two assists. He finished strong, however, ending the last game of his sophomore season with 11 points, six assists and, remarkably, four steals.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Dallin Hall (30) and Duquesne Dukes forward Fousseyni Drame (34) battle for the ball during the game between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Duquesne Dukes in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at the CHI Health Center in Omaha on Thursday, March 21, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

In the first nine minutes, “we did not execute the things we went over mentally,” Hall said. “We weren’t as physical as we should have been. But ultimately we had a tied ball game (60-60 with 1:48 remaining), so that’s no excuse. We just have to execute down the stretch.”

After a quiet first 36 minutes, Duquesne’s Jimmy Clark III — the “Pittsburgh Stealer” — took over down the stretch, scoring nine of his 11 points after Robinson’s triple got BYU within a point 55-54, with 5:09 remaining.

Clark made the play of the game, stealing a Saunders pass and racing downcourt for a dunk with 2:55 left. It was his fourth steal of the game, and another reminder that steals — which often lead to fast break baskets — are one of the most underrated statistics in basketball.

“We tip our hat to Duquesne. They played a great game. We didn’t put our best foot forward. It is just frustrating,” Hall said. “Luckily we got a lot of young guys, so we will learn from it.”