Robinson sparks BYU basketball past Portland in WCC tourney opener


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LAS VEGAS β€” Jaxson Robinson was late to the party, but when he got there, he was the life of it.

Robinson had 14 second-half points, four assists and three rebounds, and Richie Saunders added a career-high 18 points and seven boards off the bench as fifth-seeded BYU rallied from a 14-point deficit to hold off No. 9 Portland 82-71 on Friday night at Orleans Arena.

Fousseyni Traore had 14 points and nine rebounds for BYU (18-14), and Gideon George chipped in 12 points and six rebounds to help BYU overcome 31 points from Tyler Robertson with a 43-21 rebounding disparity that included a 19-7 margin on the offensive glass.

"In the first half, we came out flat," Robinson said. "But we made tremendous strides in the second half and killed it on the O-glass. That was probably the biggest thing."

One night after the Pilots hit a WCC Tournament-record 19 3-pointers, Portland, again, came out firing.

The Pilots (14-19) made four triples in the first five minutes en route to a 14-4 advantage, and the Cougars trailed for the remainder of the half.

Saunders did his best Portland imitation, going 3-for-3 from 3-point range in the first half to finish with 11 points at the break. The freshman from Wasatch Academy was unconscious off the bench, but BYU committed nine turnovers, made just one field goal in the final seven minutes, and Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki were forced to the bench with foul trouble as the Pilots took a 43-30 halftime lead.

But Robinson wasn't going to make one half of basketball turn into two.

"We didn't come out and show up the first half, and coaches told us we had to wake up and come play. We were one-and-done; if we didn't show up (in the second half), we were going to go home," Traore said. "So we just knew that we could go home, and we came back strong in the second half and pulled out the game."

Added Saunders: "We came out and said, this is not how it's going to be done. If we lose, we go home, and so we weren't going to lose."

BYU cut the deficit with three straight makes in the second half, when Robinson drained his first 3-pointer to pull within 45-40 with 17:12 remaining. That prompted a timeout from Portland coach Shantay Legans to halt the bleeding, but the 6-foot-7 Arkansas transfer found Spencer Johnson for a 3-pointer from the top of the key before hitting a corner three to give BYU a 48-45 edge with 14:48 to go via a 13-0 run.

It was BYU's first lead since the 16:53 mark of the first half, and the Pilots never led again β€” though not for trying.

"This group has been super resilient; this has not been an easy year for us," BYU coach Mark Pope said. "We've faced a ton of adversity, and there were times we haven't performed. But we were very focused on being present, and all we talked about in the locker room was don't carry anything from the first half back out there.

"Jaxson made big plays, Gideon made big plays. Fouss had a presence early on, Rudi was really inspirational. The starting group set the whole tenor of the game. I'm incredibly proud, and not surprised."

George stretched the advantage as high as 63-54 with a triple with 9:21 remaining, and Robinson hit another 3-pointer β€” his third of the night β€” to go up 68-59 three minutes later.

But did you think the Pilots would go away?

Jack Perry swished Portland trey No. 11 to pull the Pilots within three, 70-67, with 4:08 on the clock β€” and things looked dicey for the Comeback Cougars.

But Traore blocked a shot and added a putback dunk on the other end with a minute remaining to help BYU hold on and advance to Saturday's quarterfinals against Loyola Marymount.

"I was so frustrated (in the first half)," Traore said. "A lot of times, as a big, if you get two fouls in the first half then you aren't going to play the rest of that half. So I was super frustrated ... and I knew in my second half, I just had to come in and punish them. That was my mindset; whatever it takes, I'm going to go and destroy it."

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