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PROVO — After a disappointing loss to a mediocre Pacific team last Thursday night, there was little optimism in Provo that the Cougar basketball squad could pull off a win at the notoriously difficult McKeon Pavilion where the Saint Mary’s Gaels play their home games. After putting themselves in a deep 14-point deficit in the second half, the Cougars dominated the remainder of the game and squeaked out a hard-fought 60-57 win in Moraga, Calif. Here are five reasons why the win against the Gaels is particularly satisfying for BYU fans, players and coaches:
The Cougars played great defense
Despite ranking third in the nation in points per game, BYU has already lost 10 games — including several losses to cellar-dwelling teams such as Loyola Marymount, Portland and Pacific. One of the chief reasons for this discrepancy in offensive firepower and overall record is porous defense. The Cougars are allowing a whopping 78.1 points per game — good for second to last in the West Coast Conference and 331st in the nation.
Perhaps most damaging was the fact that in WCC road games, BYU opponents were making nearly 50 percent of their 3-point attempts. Different opinions have been given about why BYU defenders have struggled to slow down opposing offenses. In a recent interview with KSL, Jackson Emery cited lack of chemistry and effort on the defensive side of the ball as the culprits for the subpar defense. Whatever the reason, fans and media could agree on one thing: before the Saint Mary's game, the Cougars' D had been lousy.
The Saint Mary's game was a different story. The Cougars looked focused on the defensive side of the court and played with a tenacity that had been lacking all year. BYU dominated the second half and never allowed the Gaels to get comfortable on offense. In a complete team effort, the guards locked down the perimeter and held Saint Mary's to a paltry 4-19 (21 percent) from 3-point land while Saint Mary’s most explosive big man, Brad Waldow, was a non-factor in the second half.
BYU made its free throws
After defensive ineptness, the Cougars’ other major struggle this season has been free-throw shooting. From the charity stripe, BYU players are shooting an anemic 69 percent. Outside of Tyler Haws and Skyler Halford, only one BYU player is making more than 68 percent (Matt Carlino) of his free throws. An inability to consistently make free throws had been very costly to the Cougars in multiple losses on the year.
Things did not start off well against Saint Mary's from the free-throw line. In the first half, BYU only made one of its first seven (14 percent) foul shots. But in the second half, the Cougars made an impressive 10 of 13 (77 percent) foul shots. Of particular note, BYU players hit their free throws down the stretch to thwart any comeback possibilities for the Gaels.
The Cougars pulled out a close game
All year, it seemed like the most apt description of the BYU basketball season was "close but no cigar.” Whether it was blowing big leads, missing late free throws, losing players to foul-outs or costly defensive lapses, the Cougars found a way to lose numerous games they should have won.
Against Saint Mary's, BYU finally changed the script. Rather than blowing a big lead, the Cougars fought back from a large deficit. They did so by getting stop after stop on defense to carve into a 14-point second-half deficit. They made the Gaels pay for getting into early foul trouble in the second half by making clutch free throws down the stretch.
When Kyle Collinsworth fouled out late, the Cougars banded together and got game-saving stops and generated good shots on offense rather than crumbling with the adversity. Perhaps most gratifying was the fact that the big win came on the road, where BYU has struggled to beat anyone, much less quality opponents. The alternate ending that occurred in the Saint Mary’s game was a welcome change of events for BYU players, coaches and fans.
Before the recent game against the Pacific Tigers, ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi had the Cougars playing in the NCAA tournament. After the Tigers upset the Cougars, Lunardi had BYU out of the tournament. The general feeling in Provo was that the Cougars would need to win the WCC conference tournament and thus receive an automatic bid to play in March Madness. Lunardi said that for the Cougars to get back into his bracket, they would need to beat the Gaels on the road. While the Cougars still have their work cut out for them, this week's matchup at the Marriott Center against league-leading and 24th ranked Gonzaga just got a lot more interesting.
Vengeance is sweet
Prior to this season, the Gaels have been a major thorn in BYU basketball's side with Saint Mary's sweeping the previous two series against the Cougars. The Cougs’ big come-from-behind win against the Gaels on Feb. 1 ensured that a third straight sweep was out of the question. However, the game was not without controversy when seldom-used backup Garrett Jackson of Saint Mary's threw a cheap sucker-punch at BYU big man Eric Mika. The Cougars repaid the favor in the best way possible by stunning the Gaels on their home court.
Perhaps even more satisfying is that the win came on the night when former Gaels guard Matthew Dellavedova had his number retired by the university. While Dellavedova was a great contributor and walked away as the school's all-time leading scorer, he will probably be most remembered by Saint Mary's and BYU fans for his stunning game-winning half-court shot and subsequent exuberant celebration at the Marriott Center last season. The loss sent the Cougars in a downward spiral they never fully recovered from. To put a damper on Dellavedova’s special night was probably extra satisfying to BYU players and coaches who participated in last year's matchup.
While the win against the Gaels was an important one for BYU basketball, there is little time for the Cougars to rest as they face league-leading Gonzaga this Thursday at the Marriott Center. The Cougars struggled mightily in the teams’ first showdown this season and will need to bring their “A” game again. With the reversal of fortune, though, that occurred against Saint Mary’s, there’s reason for optimism that the Cougs are finally on the right track and have figured out some of their problems that have shackled them all season.
Dylan Cannon is a KSL.com sports contributor and can be reached at his email at DylanCannon86@gmail.com or his Twitter account @DylanCannon11.