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LAS VEGAS — A win over the last-place West Coast Conference team has pushed BYU one victory away from playing for an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
Standing in the Cougars’ way are the San Francisco Dons (21-10, 13-5), who beat San Diego 69-60 in the first conference quarterfinal.
BYU beat USF by seven in California and by five in Provo, and there’s no reason to think Monday night’s contest won’t come down to the wire.
Dons coach Rex Walters had his team well-prepared for both of the earlier meetings, dropping four men back in transition to thwart the Cougars’ fast break. There's myriad reasons why Walters was named WCC coach of the year in this, his sixth season at the helm in San Francisco.
The defensive preparation wasn’t just determined to stop BYU in transition. Walters also tabbed 6-foot-9 forward Mark Tollefsen as the man who would chase junior Tyler Haws all over the floor, and he was helped by a team defense that hedged on nearly every screen to double the nation’s sixth leading scorer.
Haws was still able to find his stroke, but as a team, the Cougars scored their second-lowest winning point total in the Feb. 8 matchup at the Marriott Center.
Dave Rose said, “everything came really difficult” and “there was nothing easy” following that crucial game for WCC second place.
However, the attention paid to Haws gave sophomore Kyle Collinsworth more room to operate, which he took advantage of by averaging 19 points a game versus the Dons on 60 percent shooting.
Stopping the USF attack is predicated on containing big man Cole Dickerson. The 6-foot-7 senior makes up for the size he gives up on the block by using his frame to outmuscle his defender. Dickerson had a monstrous 26 points and 14 rebounds in the first meeting, but the combination of junior Nate Austin and freshman Eric Mika swarmed him in Provo to hold him to a more pedestrian 10 points and six boards. Kruize Pinkins helps shoulder the load and gives USF one of the most effective frontline duos in the league.
Mika showed his continuous frustration with collegiate officiating in BYU’s win Saturday over Loyola Marymount, and it seemed to affect how mentally involved he was as the game progressed. He played clean, disciplined defense for the most part and only registered two fouls, but the calls he wasn’t getting on the offensive end motivated him to make two rash decisions in the second half, which resulted in fouls on back-to-back defensive possessions.
Austin has improved dramatically this season as the anchor of the defense. Still, there’s no doubt he feels a greater responsibility than ever to protect the rim with the less-experienced freshman Luke Worthington starting alongside him down low. Austin avoided fouling out against LMU, despite picking up his fourth with 13:38 left to play. The paint will be the area of emphasis when the Dons have the ball as their 47.7 percent regular season average from the floor was good enough for second best in the WCC, even though they were just 37.1 percent behind the arc.
That isn’t to say that USF can’t beat BYU on the perimeter. A backcourt that lost its starting point guard four games into the season has relied on sophomore Avry Holmes, who is the fourth-best 3-point shooter in the conference at 44.7 percent.
Junior Anson Winder will likely take the responsibility of containing Holmes, so Haws and Collinsworth will have their hands full with two physical guards — Penn State transfer Matt Glover and sophomore Tim Derksen (scored team-high 17 at the Marriott Center).
BYU won the first time around by forcing key turnovers and shooting a blistering 55 percent after halftime on its way to 49 second-half points. Round two went to the Cougars because they took away Dickerson for most of the night and outrebounded the Dons 43-27.
USF has won six in a row going into Monday night since its last loss to BYU, while the Cougars have won five straight and nine of their last 10.
The contest is scheduled to tip off at 9:30 p.m.