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LAS VEGAS — If Monday night was the final BYU men's basketball game of the West Coast Conference era, the Cougars ended in a similar way as they have all season against Saint Mary's: with an early punch, a late flurry, and ultimately a gut-punching thud at Orleans Arena.
Alex Ducas poured in 22 points and seven rebounds, and freshman Aidan Mahaney scored 18 points as No. 16 Saint Mary's built up a big lead before holding off the Cougars 76-69 in the WCC Tournament semifinals.
Spencer Johnson had 13 points and three rebounds, and Richie Saunders added 11 points off the bench for BYU (19-15), which trailed by as much as 26 in the second half.
Senior point guard Rudi Williams had 10 points, four assists and three rebounds for the Cougars, and Dallin Hall, Fousseyni Traore and Gideon George chipped in 9 points apiece before a late rally fell agonizingly short against the No. 8-ranked team in the latest NET ratings for the third time by a total of 14 points — including a late game-winner from Mahaney in Provo.
A young BYU team that played just two seniors and brought one of them off the bench since the 10th game of the season tasted measures of success. But consistency eluded them, especially late, much like it did on Monday night in front of a loud-and-loaded 9,500-seat capacity arena.
"We've got to keep growing," BYU coach Mark Pope said in relations to all the close losses. "We've got a really young nucleus that is really special and has dipped their toe in the cost of winning. We can't really get there on call right now, but we've felt it and we've seen it, we've fallen into it. The one thing that has been really striking about our groups over the years is guys get so much better.
📸 🎥 pic.twitter.com/c8nRgiHwuo— BYU Men's Basketball (@BYUMBB) March 7, 2023
"What Rudi has done in the course of one season ... to what he's become right now is a tenured, savvy, straight-up point guard that has consistently made winning plays for us down the stretch," Pope added. "And Gideon's growth over the last three years is staggering as a human being, and an accomplished community leader — somebody who has been serving our community and his country. He's the heart and soul of this team. These guys knew the load they had to carry this year, and they didn't run away from it. They've been great mentors to the young guys, and the young guys have grown immensely. We have a long way to go, but I think the guys are super excited about it."
The Cougars missed eight of their first 10 shot attempts, and Ducas made them pay with a 3-pointer to give Saint Mary's a 19-8 advantage after an 11-1 run midway through the first half. BYU couldn't find any momentum on offense, then punctuated it with the reliable ruthlessness of a Gaels side that drained 29 seconds of shot clock before converting 50% from the field en route to a 37-20 halftime lead.
Saint Mary's (26-6) did not score a field goal for over three minutes of a five-minute run to end the half, and made just two field goals — including a triple by Mahaney with 11 seconds left — during a 13-2 run over the last 5:52 of the half.
The No. 5-ranked scoring defense in college basketball, the Gaels were ruthlessly efficient as well and outrebounded BYU 20-13, and scored 10 points off five offensive rebounds in the first half while Mahaney finished with a game-high 12 points before the break.
BYU briefly cut into its deficit with a 10–0 run, powered by technical fouls given to Mahaney and Ducas (as well as one by Hall) before Atiki Ally Atiki's dunk pulled the Cougars within 56-40 with 12:12 to go.
Then BYU went to the press.
George forced a turnover and converted on the other end to cap a 13-3 run that lifted the Cougars within seven, 67-60, with 3:30 to go. The Gaels had no timeouts after BYU scored on four straight possessions, and Johnson drew Mahaney's fourth foul to set up a reverse lay-in by Saunders, who seems to seriously enjoy playing in Las Vegas, to trim the deficit down to 5.
🔒🔒🔒 pic.twitter.com/nYLuokyceR— BYU Men's Basketball (@BYUMBB) March 7, 2023
"We gave them hope, and they brought it," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "It can be tough to play against (the press), but we'll get another crack at it tomorrow."
Added George: "I'll give credit to the coaching staff for that. We've prepared the press all year long, and Richie, Spencer, Dallin, myself, everyone just bought into the press. I give credit to (the coaches) for that."
But Mahaney never came off the floor and made 3-of-4 free throws down the stretch to help seal the victory.
"I'm glad I could make the ones that helped us get the win," said Mahaney, an All-WCC honoree as a freshman who shot 6-of-13 from the field and 4-of-6 from the free-throw line. "I think it was just composure for 40 minutes; we preach it, and I try to do it the best I can even though tonight I wasn't perfect.
"I definitely have confidence in myself, and I'm glad the coaches have confidence in me to play in that situation."