Richie Saunders really likes Vegas, which is good for BYU basketball

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LAS VEGAS — There's something about Richie Saunders and Sin City.

A month into his freshman season, the Riverton native who dreamt his whole life of playing for BYU played a pivotal role with 10 points, six rebounds and three assists in what was then a season-high 23 minutes of an 83-80 win over then-No. 21 Creighton.

Fast forward to Saturday night, and Saunders, once again, stood strong under the bright lights made famous by Wayne Newton and Frank Sinatra.

Jaxson Robinson keyed a 13-point second-half comeback to lead BYU to an 82-71 win over Portland in the second round of the West Coast Conference Tournament. But don't overlook Saunders' role.

The 6-foot-5 returned missionary who prepped at Wasatch Academy had a career-high 18 points with three 3-pointers and seven rebounds to keep BYU's season alive against a Portland team that set a WCC Tournament record less than 24 hours prior with 19 3-pointers.

For a moment, Saunders looked like he fit right in with the Pilots (14-19), who got a herculean effort from Tyler Robertson's game-high 31 points and six assists and made a more realistic nine 3-pointers.

"I'm just fortunate enough to have been out there on the floor," Saunders said. "Like coach said, in the second half, that starting group was incredible. It totally changed the pace of the game. ... In the locker room, nothing was over; we didn't just roll over. And that's what I think is so incredible. We came out and said, this is not done. If we lose we go home — so we're not going to lose."

Saunders deferred credit to his teammates, including Robinson and fellow Wasatch alum Fousseyi Traore, who had 14 points and nine rebounds on 6-of-7 shooting, but his coaches and teammates could see his contributions.

Without Robinson, there may not have been a second-half comeback for the Cougars (18-14). But without Saunders, there may not have been a surmountable comeback to bid without his 12 first-half points that helped BYU simply tread water.

"We were stuck. He had a coach sitting on the sideline who was stuck, just a big dummy, and we were stuck as a team," BYU coach Mark Pope said. "Richie said, to keep us afloat, I'm just going to raise up and make some shots. That's coming from a freshman in his first-ever taste of March Madness. That's pretty exciting.

"He's got an unbelievable motor, and clearly he was huge for us tonight. He's had a really incredible freshman year, with a huge impact every fourth or fifth or sixth game — and that's a lot to do as a freshman. He's been incredible."

Traore has referred to Saunders as his "big brother" since the Wasatch upperclassman took him under his wing as a freshly arrived newcomer from Mali to Sanpete County. But on Friday night, the sophomore who is now a year older academically than his "big little brother" saw real maturation from the wing who averaged 5.4 points and 2.4 rebounds on 44.6% shooting across 32 games with two starts.

"He was just feeling it," Traore said. "He's my 'little brother,' but ever since high school, I knew what he could do. He can really shoot the ball. He just plays super hard.

"Nobody plays as hard as Richie. His motor is always going, and that's why I love playing with him."

Saunders' motor kept revving until Robinson could pace a 13-0 run that opened the second half, eventually turning a double-digit deficit into a lead that swelled as high as 11.

And then, Saunders did something else: he kept contributing, going 2-for-6 with five rebounds and a pair of free throws in the second half to help BYU pull away for good in front of a crowd that became increasingly more pro-BYU as the second half wore on.

"It was big-time," Saunders said. "We're in Vegas, but it sounded just like our crowd; not as loud, but still a big volume.

"I love being able to play in front of these incredible fans."

BYU continues play in the WCC Tournament against fourth-seeded Loyola Marymount late Saturday (8 p.m. MST, ESPN2).

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