Barcello helps BYU basketball escape San Francisco with 71-69 win

BYU guard Alex Barcello shoots over San Francisco's Khalil Shabazz during an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022 at the Sobrato Center in San Francisco, Calif. (Courtesy: BYU Basketball)

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PROVO — He said it almost nonchalantly that he wasn't challenged on the set at Bristol, Connecticut.

Speaking on ESPN's College GameDay just a day after calling BYU's humbling loss at No. 2 Gonzaga, college basketball analyst Jay Bilas took a moment to reflect on Alex Barcello, the Cougars' 47% 3-point shooter who ranks in the top 50 nationally.

"I will say though," Bilas said, "Alex Barcello of BYU is the best shooter in the country. He's the best shooter."

The Arizona transfer backed up the bold assertion Saturday night.

The Gilbert, Arizona, product scored 18 points with three 3-pointers to go along with seven rebounds and three assists, and Te'Jon Lucas added 12 points and five assists, including the key free throws down the stretch, as BYU escaped War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center with a 71-69 win, handing San Francisco its first home loss of the year Saturday night.

"There's no one like him in the country," BYU coach Mark Pope told CBS Sports of Barcello. "And what we don't see in the public is what we see in the locker room, the way he has reconstructed this team three years in a row."

Pope elaborated with BYU Radio on the "incredible" story that is Barcello, who transferred to BYU prior to the 2019-20 season from Arizona and took advantage of the free season of eligibility provided by the COVID-19 pandemic to play a third season with the Cougars.

"I could write books about my thoughts on Alex Barcello and how special what he's doing is," Pope said. "But his toughness tonight, with everything he is enduring — he was completely unfazed the entire game. There was never a moment where he got sideways.

"It was just his guts and determination and focus and skill that was on full display tonight. Find me five college basketball players like him in the country and I'll be really impressed."

In three years under Pope's guidance, the Cougars have still yet to lose consecutive regular-season games. And for the first time in the 2021-22 season, BYU won after trailing with five minutes left in the game.

Fousseyni Traore added 9 points and nine rebounds, and Caleb Lohner supplied 8 points and five rebounds for the Cougars (15-4, 3-1 WCC) — all but one rebound in the second half.

Jamaree Bouyea poured in 19 points and seven rebounds for San Francisco, and Khalil Shabazz added 14 points, five rebounds and two assists for the Dons (15-3, 2-1 WCC). Patrick Tape added 12 points and seven rebounds for San Francisco, which shot just 32% from the field and 3 of 23 from beyond the arc.

"San Francisco is a great team. They've proven it. They don't lose here right now, and Todd (Golden) does a great job," Pope said. "It's just guts, man. I get emotional a little bit, because as a coach, we get to witness how much investment these guys make in blood, sweat and tears.

"Coming off a travel day and the two toughest teams in our league right now, I couldn't be more proud of my guys. They fought and fought and fought."

The host Dons outscored the Cougars 24-14 from the free-throw line — including shooting 10 more foul shots — while keeping BYU off the glass 36-34 and leading by as many as 10 points in the second half.

BYU held the Dons to just 21% from the field in the first half, including 1 for 10 from 3-point range. But the Cougars couldn't guard the free-throw line.

San Francisco went to the foul line 19 times — and made 17 of those free throws — before the Cougars attempted one; the first free throws were a pair of makes by Seneca Knight with 12:41 to go. That wasn't the only reason BYU trailed on the road: The Dons made 4-of-5 shots out of halftime while owning a rebounding margin that grew as large as 27-22 while taking control with an 8-2 run out of the halftime break.

But it didn't help, either.

"It kind of had a Saint Mary's-like flow," said Lucas, who hit four of BYU's final six free throws in the final three minutes to clinch the win. "A lot of calls weren't going our way, but we kept preaching 'keep fighting.' Our team was able to battle through adversity and just come out with a win."

None of that seemed to matter by the end of the game, though.

The Cougars tied the game at 54-54 with an 11-2 run sparked by — you guessed it — Barcello midway through the second half. But BYU couldn't retake the lead until Lucas nailed a pair of free throws with 1:41 remaining to go up 66-65 during a three-minute field-goal drought by the Dons.

"It's super humbling as a coach to get to bear witness to these moments with these guys," Pope said. "I don't know the words to describe the last five minutes on the bench, in our huddle, and in our locker room after. You almost think about the 19-0 free throws and feel like it's piling on.

"When you overcome all of that, that's when you get to feel the five minutes in our locker room that is five minutes most human beings never get to experience as a team. It's the best thing in sports — it's just awesome. You don't like it while it's going on, but when you overcome it, it's special."

The Cougars never trailed again, leading for just 4:22 of game time. But it was the right 4:22, enough to give BYU its first Quad 1 win of the year.

"It will hold some weight down in March," Lucas said.

Pope explained the reason for the late-game heroics, with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

"All the Cougar fans have to get up and go to church tomorrow, and we knew if we didn't keep it close, everyone was going to bed," he said. "We tried to help CBS with their ratings and tried to be good citizens of college basketball.

"The guys did a great job."

BYU returns home Thursday to face San Diego. Tipoff from the Marriott Center is scheduled for 7 p.m. MST on CBS Sports Network.

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