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How BYU dug a hole against Saint Mary’s, then staged a remarkable rally, only to fall short

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LAS VEGAS — Fittingly, BYU and Saint Mary’s played one final memorable West Coast Conference game against each other. 

And it was more like two games in one.

For the first 25 minutes of Monday’s WCC tournament semifinal, the top-seeded Gaels put on a don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out performance, surging to a 26-point lead. Saint Mary’s was eviscerating the No. 5 seeded Cougars. 

It was not the way BYU wanted to leave the WCC — not on a bitterly sour note like that.

But over the final 15 minutes, the Cougars staged a furious rally, cutting the deficit to three points with 32 seconds remaining. 

In the end, though, No. 16 ranked Saint Mary’s held off BYU 76-69 at Orleans Arena. 

“It’s who our guys have been all year,” Cougar coach Mark Pope said about his team’s resilience and refusal to quit. “I’m completely unsurprised. I’m just disappointed.”

The Gaels advanced to the WCC tournament championship game Tuesday. 

As for BYU? Its season is likely over.

One last time, Saint Mary’s (26-6) administered pain to the Cougars (19-15), denying them their 20th win of the season and keeping them out of the WCC title game. And they also snapped BYU’s modest three-game winning streak. 

Still, over the final 15 minutes, the Cougars did not go down quietly.

“You don’t want to have to try to beat BYU a third time. They’re pretty talented and they just won two games in this tournament. It was a tough game,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. “We played well the first 25 minutes and then we lost focus a little bit. We picked up a technical and things like that. They got some momentum and we gave them some hope.”

Things started badly for the Cougars — a double-digit deficit at the midway point of the first half and a 17-point deficit at halftime — and just got worse early in the second half.  

BYU dug a deep hole and spent most of the night trying to climb its way out. 

The tone for this one was set early — the Cougars missed six of its first seven shots. The Gaels were getting high-percentage layups and made everything difficult for BYU. 

As usual, Saint Mary’s got into passing lanes, created deflections, played physical, and generally made the Cougars look like they were stuck in mud.

“We were a little bit paralyzed defensively, surprisingly for us. I can’t even tell you exactly why. There’s 100 different reasons,” Pope said. “Two super emotional days back-to-back, the anticipation of the opportunity that was in front of us, maybe the respect for Saint Mary’s and how they are … Somehow, we couldn’t find our emotional well early in the game. On the offensive side, our Achilles’ heel has been when we get stagnant. We got stagnant. Credit Saint Mary’s for a lot of that.”

The Gaels held a 37-20 lead at intermission. BYU shot 30%, compared to 50% for Saint Mary’s in the first half. 

Early in the second half, the Gaels kept their foot on the gas. They knocked down their first four shots, including a pair of 3-pointers by Alex Ducas, who finished with a game-high 23 points and four 3s. 

Then the complexion of the game turned, thanks to BYU’s effective press, forcing Saint Mary’s into turnovers and mistakes. And the Cougars starting hitting shots. The Gaels got flustered, lost some composure, and the Cougars fed off it. 

“We’ve got to be a lot better with the press,” said Saint Mary’s freshman guard Aidan Mahaney. “Teams have been able to frustrate us with that recently.”

“We hardly ever get pressed,” Bennett said. “Gonzaga threw one on us up there and we didn’t do a good job with it in the first half. Tonight, the same thing kind of happened. Initially, we struggled with it.”

BYU guards Dallin Hall, left, and Richie Saunders (15) apply pressure to Saint Mary’s guard Logan Johnson (0) during a West Coast Conference tournament semifinal game at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 6, 2023. The Gaels won, 76-69.

With 12:59 remaining, things got a little bit chippy, with a Class A technical fouls whistled on Cougar guard Dallin Hall, Mahaney and Ducas. 

BYU rediscovered some life and grabbed the momentum after an alley-oop dunk by Atiki Ally Atiki with 12:46 on the clock. Later, the Cougars went on a 13-3 run to cut the deficit to single digits, 67-60. 

“There was a real feel of belief. We’ve been through this before. We just wanted to keep chipping away at it,” said BYU guard Rudi Williams, who finished with 10 points. “We didn’t start the second half that well. But credit to the guys that came off the bench. They gave us a huge lift and finally brought the fight. That’s what led to that comeback happening.”

In November, the Cougars rallied from a 23-point first-half deficit to stun Dayton in the Bahamas at The Battle 4 Atlantis. 

BYU continued to be aggressive offensively against the Gaels. Hall’s 3-pointer with 53 seconds left made the score 71-67 for Saint Mary’s. 

A Williams layup narrowed the Gaels’ lead to 72-69. Then with 22 seconds remaining, Williams drove to the hoop and had his shot blocked by Logan Johnson. 

From there, Saint Mary’s sealed the game by hitting free throws. 

“It was a typical BYU-Saint Mary’s game. I’ve loved playing them in my career. We’ll definitely miss them in this league. It’s been a great rivalry.” — Saint Mary’s guard Alex Ducas

 In the second half, BYU shot 64.3% from the field. 

“Our biggest problem in the second half was, they shot above 50% and they scored 49 points,” Bennett said. “We gave them hope. And they brought it.”

Ducas called it the latest in a long chapter of intense, physical games between the two programs. 

“It was definitely an exciting game in terms of competitiveness. It’s a big game. There’s a lot of emotions on the line,” he said. “We expected that going in. It was a typical BYU-Saint Mary’s game. I’ve loved playing them in my career. We’ll definitely miss them in this league. It’s been a great rivalry.”

Pope lamented the fact his team is leaving the WCC with four straight losses to Saint Mary’s. And he lamented the way the game started. 

“We had a tough time working our way into this game tonight,” he said. “That’s my job. I couldn’t quite get us there in time.”

As for the Gaels, they lamented their second-half collapse. 

“It wasn’t the way we wanted to win,” Ducas said, “but we’ll take it.”

“Overall, happy we came out with the win,” Mahaney said. “That was the end result we were looking for. We’ll move on to the next game.”

Said Bennett: “We were up 26. We need to finish that better.”

Certainly, BYU wanted to finish its last WCC tournament better than it did Monday. The Cougars fell short, but at least they went down swinging.

AP23066113886399.jpg

BYU guard Richie Saunders, bottom center, grabs the ball against Saint Mary’s during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference men’s tournament Monday, March 6, 2023, in Las Vegas.

David Becker, Associated Press

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