LAS VEGAS — One of BYU coach Dave Rose’s keys to winning a conference tournament title is simple: depth.
The Cougars will need plenty of it if they want to contend with the top two seeds at the West Coast Conference Tournament, No. 4 Gonzaga and No. 20 Saint Mary’s.
Saturday’s quarterfinal against Loyola Marymount didn’t inspire a ton of confidence, then, but BYU lives to fight another day.
Eric Mika scored 25 points, and the Cougars’ starting five scored all but one point in the 89-81 win over the Lions at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Nick Emery scored 13 of his 21 points in the second half for BYU, and Elijah Bryant and TJ Haws each added 14 for the Cougars (21-10).
“I think the proudest I am of our guys is they kept coming back at us, and we were able to respond every time,” Rose said. “That’s a sign of a team that is playing really tight as a group and executing well.”
Bryant and Emery opened the game with a barrage of 3-pointers, and BYU led 14-8 after just 3:20 while connecting on six of its first eight shots.
But the Lions scored at a similar clip, shooting 55 percent from the field early and drawing two quick fouls that sent Bryant to the bench barely five minutes into the first half.
That’s when the Lions came back. Kelvin Amayo canned a triple to put the Lions ahead 22-17 at the 12:15 mark of the first half, and LMU (15-15) used its physical style of play to force the Cougars into a deep rotation with little productivity outside of the top line.
“We feel like we have a little bit of an advantage because our pace and quickness,” LMU coach Mike Dunlap said. “We compare it to our lines in hockey. When they are tired, we have a lot of confidence in guys No. 7-11. there were some pivotal moments where the guys felt like conditioning was key.”
The Cougars took back on the lead by feeding Mika in the post on consecutive plays, including a dunk with 6:21 to build BYU’s 34-30 lead. Yoeli Childs then took over down the stretch, finishing the half with 10 of his 13 points to go along with six rebounds and three assists — and a 42-38 lead.
“Whether we are winning or losing games, we just come together,” said Childs, who stood out in the first half shortly after his alma mater (Bingham High) won back-to-back 5A state titles. “I think that’s huge for a team full of young guys. No matter what happens, we’re going to stick together.”
Mika scored eight straight after the break to build BYU’s lead to 53-47, and Emery capped a 12-3 run with a trio of free throws to give the Cougars the lead for good after finding his shot.
“I have never had three fouls in the first half,” Emery said, before adding, “but I came out refreshed in the second half. I got wide-open shots from my teammates, and just knocked them down.”
Still, LMU didn’t go away. Steven Haney hit back-to-back shots, including a 3-pointer in front of his team’s bench, to pull the Lions to within two, 69-67, with 6:36 remaining and Mika saddled with foul trouble.
But the elder sophomore returned to give the Cougars a 73-67 lead two minutes later, and BYU began to look forward to its semifinal game Monday against Saint Mary’s.
Even with the lack of offensive productivity, BYU’s bench did just enough to hold serve and contribute. Davin Guinn got to the foul line and added a pair of steals, and Steven Beo dished out a pair of assists for the Cougars.
“They kind of weathered the storm for us at the time,” Rose said of his bench. “I don’t think that it’s a group of guys who we are going to turn it over to and see them automatically scoring and defending and rebounding as a cohesive group."