Cougars hoping fans show up to watch them play Gaels

Published: Friday, Jan. 27 2012 7:36 p.m. MST

PROVO — Around the Marriott Center, it feels a lot like old times.

Sure, Jimmer Fredette is gone — though he returns to Utah tonight when his Sacramento Kings face the Jazz — and BYU is competing in the West Coast Conference instead of the Mountain West Conference.

But as No. 21 Saint Mary's invades Provo tonight (7 p.m., MST, ESPNU), the scenario is a familiar one for the Cougars — it's a showdown with conference championship implications, and a sellout crowd of 22,700 is expected to be on hand.

Just some of the names have changed.

Forward Noah Hartsock said the circumstances leading up to this game are reminiscent of contests in recent years against former MWC rivals New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State. "I know the fans are going to be excited to be able to come to this type of game once again," Hartsock said.

"If the players look forward to this challenge as much as the coaches, we're going to have a great night," said coach Dave Rose. "Our players, this is why they come (to BYU), to play in front of a full house, and to play a nationally ranked team."

BYU knows it needs to emerge victorious to remain in the WCC race. Also, the Cougars are sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

On top of that, BYU (18-5, 6-2) is looking to avenge a humbling 98-82 loss to the Gaels (20-2, 9-0) in Moraga, Calif., nearly one month ago.

"It's one of those games that we need to win," said Hartsock. "They really manhandled us in the last game. It's a big opportunity for us to show how we've improved over the last eight or nine games we've played."

No wonder students built a tent city outside the Marriott Center this week in anticipation of this matchup.

"It's going to be a dogfight the whole game," said forward Brandon Davies.

BYU is confident, coming off a dramatic 70-68 road victory at Virginia Tech of the Atlantic Coast Conference last Wednesday.

Hartsock said beating the Hokies "really helped us just in our mindset that we can go on the road and beat good teams, even in a close game like that. Sometimes we've struggled in close games with Utah State and Baylor. These are the games that we can win and need to win."

"It was a great win," said guard Brock Zylstra, who drained the game-winning 3-pointer with 26.5 seconds remaining. "We all knew that BYU was 0-8 against ACC opponents on the road (going into that game). ... It meant a lot to us. It was good for us to get started in these next couple of games to get that winning feeling."

Next Thursday, the Cougars host perennial WCC power Gonzaga.

"They're big games," Zylstra said of this upcoming stretch. "Saint Mary's is in the top 25. We all remember what happened to us down there in California and the feelings we had walking out of that arena, not feeling the greatest. This game is big for us. We need to get this win and fix the things we didn't do as well down there."

With Saint Mary's and Gonzaga coming to town, there's plenty at stake, including a shot at the regular-season conference championship.

"We know what's on the line," Hartsock said. "(The Gaels are) two games ahead of us right now. We've got to take care of them and do our best the rest of (WCC play). It kind of has that feeling right now. This is a big game for us, especially the change of conferences to a conference that hasn't gotten a lot of bids to the NCAA Tournament. We hold our own destiny. We've got to make sure we win the games we need to win."

In the first meeting — it was BYU's inaugural WCC conference game — Saint Mary's was in control most of the way.

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