Balanced Cougars pull away from winless Texas Southern in non-conference finale

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PROVO — Just two nights before Christmas, with the majority of the university's student body away on break, the BYU men's basketball team was having one of the offensive nights every team fears — shooting less than 40 percent from the field and clinging to a 31-28 lead over winless Texas Southern at halftime.

But in a night when offense wouldn't carry the Cougars, defense did.

Yoeli Childs had 19 points and eight rebounds to lead a balanced scoring effort as the BYU men’s basketball team won its eighth-straight game, 73-52, over Texas Southern in front of 14,583 fans Saturday night in the Cougars' non-conference finale in the Marriott Center.

"I thought mentally we were ready to go," said Childs, who also had two steals. "We knew there were going to be nights like this before the season, where offensively things wouldn’t be going for us. But if we stuck with it defensively, we would start hitting shots.

"When we have an off night offensively, just stick with it and keep building each other’s confidence."

TJ Haws added 11 points, four rebounds and two assists for the Cougars (11-2), who open West Coast Conference play next Thursday at home against Portland.

Eight BYU players scored five or more points in a balanced scoring effort, including Zac Seljaas, who had nine points, four assists and three rebounds for a BYU team that finished shooting just 42 percent from the field.

McKay Cannon had five points and a season-high four steals for the Cougars, who have held opponents to 71 points or less in every game since a 71-59 loss to Alabama on Nov. 24.

"When things aren’t going our way offensively, we need to lock down and play tough defense," Haws said. "I thought we had a great game plan defensively, and give them credit for making tough shots. I thought we fouled a bit in the first half, too.

"You’ve got to win on nights where you aren’t shooting the ball as well as you’d hope."

Marquis Salmon, who averaged just two points per game for the well-traveled Tigers (0-13), had 10 points and six rebounds. UMass graduate transfer Donte Clark led Texas Southern with 15 points and four rebounds.

The Tigers, dubbed the "best winless team in America" by college basketball pundits across the nation, opened the game by showing off their stunning athleticism — despite only suiting up eight players in the final game of a 13-game road trip to open the season.

Trayvon Reed's rim-rattling alley-oop dunk less than 15 seconds into the contest gave Texas Southern the opening lead on a night when the Tigers led for just 7:14 of game time.

And the Southwestern Athletic Conference team kept things tight early, until Seljaas scored on back-to-back possessions to highlight a 7-0 spurt. Still, the Cougars shot just 39 percent from the field to take a narrow 31-28 edge into halftime.

"What usually comes easy for us didn’t come easy for us tonight," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "But our guys still hung in there. They played together, and we got help from our bench. We did a lot of things tonight that I think can really pay off down the road when you are competing for a conference championship."

BYU guard McKay Cannon (24) goes up for a shot as BYU and Texas Southern play an NCAA basketball game in Provo at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017. BYU won 73-52. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
BYU guard McKay Cannon (24) goes up for a shot as BYU and Texas Southern play an NCAA basketball game in Provo at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017. BYU won 73-52. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

After the break, the Cougars began to find a little more separation while shooting against Texas Southern's 2-3 zone defense.

Elijah Bryant, one of four starters who earned two fouls apiece in the first half, opened the second half with a deep 3-pointer to earn a little shooting space.

Seljaas’ jumper off an assist from McKay Cannon gave BYU a 10-point lead, and the Cougars capped a 12-2 run with Payton Dastrup marking his third-straight game with a 3-pointer to give the Cougars a 48-35 lead with 12:03 left.

The Tigers, who played without two starters, saw leading scorer Clark sidelined with four fouls midway through the second half. When the UMass graduate transfer returned to the game, he fouled out moments later with 15 points and four rebounds.

Lamont Walker used a late flurry to finish with 16 points and eight rebounds for the Tigers, whose first road game comes Jan. 1 in the SWAC opener against Southern University. Despite the record, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projected Texas Southern as a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament from the one-bid SWAC.

"I think (Texas Southern head coach Mike Davis) has got a really talented squad, and we didn’t get to see the whole group tonight," Rose said. "They’ve got them as a projected NCAA Tournament team, and I wish them the best in his league."

The game started with a moment of silence to honor the father of Tigers sophomore Demontrae Jefferson, who was killed earlier this week. Rose met with Davis prior to the game for an update on the Texas Southern guard who averaged 23.4 points per game through the first 12 games of the year. BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe also met with Davis before the game once he learned of the tragedy.

"It’s hard to really talk about the game when you know that you’ve got somebody on their team that is dealing with the unthinkable," Rose said. "I talked to Mike before the game, and he said Trae is doing the best that you can expect.

"But it’s a game that we’re playing, and sometimes life really gets in the way of the game. I wish them and their team the very best."

The Cougars were also made aware of the tragedy prior to the game, and offered their own players' tribute to the team as they departed the Marriott Center.

"That’s definitely a hard situation," Haws said. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family."


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