LAS VEGAS – With the return of its leading scorer, Noah Hartsock, BYU captured a win of 73-68 in its first-ever West Coast Conference Tournament game against the University of San Diego on Friday night.
Earning rights to go up against two-seed Gonzaga on Saturday night, things may be looking up for the three seed Cougars – potentially having their leading scorer suited up in the battle against a team that currently holds the victory bell from their most recent match-up.
Hartsock’s knee injury weeks ago and inability to put an minutes on the court in the last regular-season game has put his availability for the first tournament game in question.
“Our guys had confidence (Friday) afternoon when I told them at shoot around that Noah was going to dress,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “All week we were fighting some real mental issues with our team because you don’t want to lose your leading scorer; when you go into a tournament you want them. I was happy that our guys today could actually look like themselves.”
While one BYU’s captain’s presence brought an instant boost of confidence to the surrounding BYU jerseys, Hartsock said that he personally was able to grow stronger as the game went on.
“Coming in I knew it wasn’t going to be a 100 percent,” Hartsock said. “It started to feel better as the game went on. The adrenaline kept the blood flowing in. I think it took a little while to get adjusted to playing again. Hopefully it just keeps improving.”
Despite Hartsock still having to patiently wait on his body to fully heal, the senior forward still managed to end the night as the game’s leading scorer with 19 points (2.2 points above his average points per game).
Rose said that he would not have expected anything less from his injured senior in their competitive first-round game.
“This kid is as tough as any player I’ve met in my life,” Rose said. “I knew that if there was any way possible, that he would try to play.”
Hartsock’s vitality to the team was blatant down to the last seconds of Friday’s game.
Holding only a three-point lead with under two minutes of game time remaining, Hartsock grabbed a foul off a defensive rebound and was fouled. He made both shots from the charity line, giving the Cougs a five-point lead with only eight seconds remaining in the game.
“I anticipated him playing,” USD head coach Bill Grier said. “I think he is the heart and soul of that team … He’s a warrior. It’s why he’s an all-league player. He’s had such a great career. He’s just a very, very tough competitor.”
Having to go against one of the three teams that BYU lost against in the regular season on Saturday, the Cougs are grateful for the large fan base that they have even miles away from home.
“(The players) get excited about coming to Vegas because they know that the fans follow them,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of BYU fans here in Vegas, but then from all over flock to Vegas and follow the team.”
With fans from all around cheering them on Saturday night, BYU is hopeful, according to shooting guard Brock Zylstra, to take care of some unfinished business.
“We’re excited to play them,” Zylstra said. “We’re excited at the chance to get back at them for the loss we had last time … We’re ready to play them.”
With their leading scorer back, Rose is ready for the Cougs to make a statement in their first ever WCC Tournament Saturday night.
“I think it’s exciting (to be playing against Gonzaga),” Rose said. “They’ve had a great history they have been the juggernaut of this tournament.”
Karissa Urry is a Brigham Young University student majoring in public relations and minoring in business management. Follow her on Twitter @KarissaEUrry