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Fouss Navidad: Career night from 'hungry' Traore helps BYU bounce back with win over Liberty

BYU center Fousseyni Traore had a career-high 19 points and 13 rebounds in his first career start, Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021 against Liberty in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii.

BYU center Fousseyni Traore had a career-high 19 points and 13 rebounds in his first career start, Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021 against Liberty in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Courtesy: BYU Photo)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

PROVO — Whether Fousseyni Traore was a mean one or a merry gentleman may depend on your point of view, but the BYU freshman made the most of his first start in a Cougar uniform on Christmas evening.

In the Aloha state where mele kalikimaka reigns, it was a Merry Christmas for BYU basketball. Or at least, a feliz navidad.

Make that: Fouss navidad.

Traore poured in a career-high 19 points and 13 rebounds, and Trevin Knell added a season-high 15 points as BYU held off Liberty 80-75 in the third-place game of the Diamond Head Classic at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

With leading scorer Alex Barcello limited on the bench and mostly ineffective after scoring 9 points on 2-of-5 shooting, BYU coach Mark Pope turned to his bench. Te'Jon Lucas had 11 points and seven assists, and Gideon George added 9 points and three rebounds for the Cougars, who improved to 11-3 on the season and unbeaten following a loss in the regular season in Pope's three seasons.

And a freshman led them all.

"Fouss just keeps getting better and better. I'm nervous about our young guys, because they all have such huge upsides," said Pope, who added that Traore also had a 4.0 GPA — or "close to it" — in his first semester at BYU, including a 99% on the Mali-born, Muslim-raised international student's first religion final. "But you worry about putting them in situations where it will set them back, mess with their confidence or their feel.

"Fouss just said, 'Why are you worrying, coach? Just let me do my thing.' We have a locker room full of really extraordinary young men, and he is really special. Very little of that has to do with his ability on the basketball court; he's a beautiful human being who cares about all the right things, and he's so humble, with an incredible work ethic."

And when Traore, who earned all-tournament team honors, went to pick up his large wooden oar symbolizing his spot on the first-team squad, the freshman who prepped at Wasatch Academy had one thought — one that will probably help him fit the oar into the airplane overhead bin for the trip back to Provo.

"We're going to split that into two," Traore said. "One for Te'Jon, one for me."

With respect to Lucas, all eyes were on the freshman Saturday.

Traore connected on 6-of-7 field goals, 7-of-8 free throws and added a block, a steal and an assist in 27 minutes after replacing Atiki Ally Atiki in the starting lineup. He grabbed 2 points and four rebounds in his first six minutes of the game, helping the Cougars keep pace with the Flames despite making just 3 of 9 from the field early.

The Cougars even took control — briefly — with a 13-1 run over 5:12 in the first half, holding Liberty without a field goal for more than six minutes midway through the first half to go up 17-9 with 9:45 to go until halftime. But freshman Brody Peebles' first 3-pointer tied the game at 21-all, and the Flames used an 8-0 run to go up 23-21 in a much more balanced first half that ended with Liberty's 33-32 edge at the break.

"I was just so excited. That was one of the best games ever," said Traore, who made his first trip to Hawaii since a second-place finish in the Iolani Prep Classic in 2019, his junior season at Wasatch. "It was very frustrating (after Thursday's loss). But Alex kept telling me, it's all good; we just have to pick it up. I was hungry, and I know everybody was hungry here."

Diamond Head Classic tournament MVP Darius McGhee had a game-high 29 points and five assists for Liberty (8-6), including setting a Diamond Head Classic record with 14 3-pointers in three games at the tournament. The sixth-best scorer in NCAA Division I entered the game averaging 21.4 points per game, including a career-high 41 two days prior in a loss to Stanford.

Speaking of the Cardinal, Stanford forced the cancellation of the Diamond Head Classic championship game after pulling out due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The scheduled final against Vanderbilt — which edged BYU in Thursday night's semifinal — was declared a no contest, and the Commodores were named tournament champions, instead.

The Cougars shot just 3 of 19 from 3-point range, and were out-shot by the Flames 49% to 47%. But the same BYU team that dropped 16 3-pointers a week ago against Weber State made up for it in the post, out-pacing Liberty 38-30 in the paint with a 35-23 advantage on the boards.

And then when they needed a shot, they still had a shooter step up — Knell, himself.

"You just see the growth of Trevin Knell. For him to come in here and make some forcible plays downhill. … I thought he was terrific tonight," Pope said. "I thought he was crucial, and I'm so proud of him."

And then the Cougars cut down on turnovers. A team that combined for 35 turnovers in the first two games of the Diamond Head Classic finished Game 3 with just 10 — the Cougars' lowest in six outings.

"Te'Jon said, just leave the ball in my hands and we'll be fine. Now I'm going to have to listen to that for the next 72 hours — and rightfully so," Pope said.

"It is a defining feature of what this team has if we're successful, but to be built on a few principles. And one of those principles is protecting this ball. I was proud of the guys for ringing the bell."

Again, that mention of Lucas, who will unofficially come home with half of an all-tournament honor.

"Te'Jon is just crazy," Traore said. "He can find anybody. I was just so excited he was always finding me. It gave me some easy baskets, and I really appreciated it."

BYU closes out nonconference play Wednesday against Division II Westminster. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. MST on BYUtv. The Cougars open West Coast Conference play Jan. 1 at Portland.

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