SALT LAKE CITY — Credit Mark Pope for his direct approach at pinpointing the reason BYU suffered a heartbreaking loss to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals.
“It was just a poor job coaching on my part,” said Pope, in his first year at BYU.
No argument there.
The Cougars weren’t ready for the physical nature of the game, leading to a horrific offensive performance in scoring only 50 points in the one-point loss. They also allowed Saint Mary’s best offensive weapon, Jordan Ford, to beat single coverage to score the winning field goal in the final seconds.
Pope, who coached four seasons at Utah Valley, falls far shy in matching the coaching experience of Randy Bennett. The head coach at Saint Mary’s since 2001, Bennett has led his program to seven appearances in the NCAA Tournament and has won three WCC Tournament championships.
Overall, BYU’s semifinal loss was a surprisingly bad showing for a team that has enjoyed a thrilling season up to this point. But all is not lost even as BYU failed again to win either a regular-season or conference tournament championship for the ninth time since beginning league play in 2012.
Come Sunday, when the brackets are announced, BYU will be among the 68 teams participating in the NCAA Tournament. After four disappointing seasons not making the field, the Cougars can expect a seed ranging from five to seven.
As bitter as the Saint Mary’s loss was, if used properly, it can benefit the players, none of whom have played in the NCAA Tournament. Now they know to toughen up a bit.
“Clearly, we just weren’t prepared for the nature of the game,” said senior forward Yoeli Childs. “Moving forward, we’ll play with more force and we’ll be more aggressive and play the right way.”
And Pope, who has never coached in the NCAA Tournament, also will learn from his mistakes and be better prepared. He’s done it well all season, negotiating through a series of injuries and Childs’ nine-game NCAA suspension to start the season.
It also helps that BYU is a senior-laden team, complete with a roster full of players desperately seeking success in the NCAA Tournament. Only Jake Toolson and Dalton Nixon remain on the roster from BYU’s last tournament appearance in 2015.
Still recovering from a nasty ankle injury, Nixon’s availability may be in doubt. Toolson saw limited playing time as a freshman before transferring to Utah Valley for two season and then returning to BYU this year.
“They’ve been great at writing the story,” Pope said. “The story that we have to write is that this devastating loss, poor coaching performance, not the best performance we’ve had on the court, that (all of) that will springboard us into something special.”
BYU can point to bouncing back from a few stinging defeats as evidence of this team’s resiliency, starting with an overtime loss at Utah during a game in which the Cougars enjoyed a double-digit lead. After losing in the Huntsman Center, the Cougars won the next six games.
After losing by one point at San Francisco, BYU then won nine consecutive games entering the conference tournament. Included in the string were last-second wins over Saint Mary’s and San Diego and beating second-ranked Gonzaga.
At this point, in the one-and-done format, the Cougars have only one choice if they want extend the season. The ever-optimistic Pope is keeping the faith.
“They rung the bell every time this year,” he said. “Last time we suffered a loss we ran off nine straight with some epic wins. I trust this group. It’s a player-led group. We have some unbelievable leadership.”