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LAS VEGAS — One was as bad as the other, and both were a mixture of pathetic and embarrassment.
The last two basketball games between Saint Mary’s and BYU ended in similar fashion, with the Gaels winning easily. The second game, which came in the West Coast Conference tournament semifinals, eliminated the longshot hopes of BYU making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two years.
Granted, by losing all three games to the Gaels this season, the Cougars are definitely not as good as Saint Mary’s. But the final two games, including on Senior Night in the Marriott Center, were particularly distressing for BYU.
The Cougars failed to compete in either game.
In the conference tournament, BYU lost by 31 points. Trailing by 16 points at halftime, they rolled over early in the first half and barely went through the motions after intermission. The margin in the final regular-season game was only 13 points, but the deficit was as many as 25 points. The game at Saint Mary’s in January was a 13-point win for the Gaels.
Likely to play in the National Invitation Tournament for the third time in five years, BYU did not meet its primary objective this season. The goal now is to gain more experience for a starting lineup that features three sophomores and two freshmen.
Maybe youthfulness is the primary culprit as to why the Cougars could prevent No.1-ranked Gonzaga from finishing the regular-season at 30-0, but then lose to Pepperdine and San Diego, two WCC teams that went a combined 22-40 this season.
Upon reflection, the Cougars need vast improvement between now and next season. The youngsters need to grow up in a hurry or face more disappointment.
This was supposed to be the season BYU took a major step toward closing the gap with Saint Mary’s and perennial conference champion Gonzaga. With a highly touted group of players — led by Lone Peak High graduates Eric Mika, TJ Haws and Nick Emery — the Cougars were expected to make the NCAA Tournament and maybe make a push toward reaching the Sweet 16 for the third time in 37 years.
Mika was BYU’s best player this season, and Haws showed potential as a point guard in his first college season, but for some reason Emery took a step backward. As a freshman last season, Emery averaged 16.3 points and shot 42 percent from the field.
This season, he dropped to 12.8 points a game on 41 percent shooting. Against Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas, he mouthed off to a Gonzaga fan before the game and went scoreless on 0 for 7 shooting. Somehow, Emery has got to rediscover his shooting touch and continue to play aggressively on defense.
“We have to learn this whole process,” coach Dave Rose said after the conference tournament loss. “You hope you can avoid it, but it is usually the way you grow. We have to figure out how to respond.”
To improve for next season, the program needs an infusion of new talent. This season’s bench ranked among the worst Rose has had during 12 years as a head coach. Even as some starters struggled, Rose had little or no options from which to choose.
Before he hits the recruiting trail, as he does every offseason, Rose has to sort out the roster. The program’s depth has been undercut by a rash of players transferring out in recent seasons. Once he’s determined the number of scholarships available, Rose would be wise to bring in junior college players capable of contributing immediately. These players need to be willing to take on the challenge of competing for playing time instead of seeking guarantees.
For now, the Cougars need to use the bitterness of another disheartening defeat as motivation going into the offseason.
“I think moving forward we just have to let it sting and be able to learn and grow from it," said starting guard Elijah Bryant.