PROVO — Now the stage is set.
No. 7-ranked BYU overcame a poor shooting night, and a slew of turnovers, to claim a gutty 84-76 victory over Colorado State on Wednesday night in front of a sellout crowd at the Marriott Center.
As the clock ticked down the waning seconds, the student section began chanting, "Beat the Aztecs!"
That, of course, was referring to BYU's monumental rematch on Saturday with No. 6 San Diego State. Wednesday's win pushed the Cougars (26-2, 12-1) into a first-place tie in the league standings with the Aztecs (27-1, 12-1).
"We're just looking forward to being able to go down there to play them. It's going to be a great atmosphere. Hopefully, we can come out with a win," said guard Jimmer Fredette, who scored a game-high 34 points against the Rams. "It's going to be nationally televised. A lot of people will be watching it. It's one of the biggest games the Mountain West Conference has ever seen. I'm just looking forward to the challenge."
Fredette, nursing a sore left calf, struggled shooting against CSU, hitting only 9-of-26 shots from the field and 2-of-8 from 3-point range.
As a team, BYU shot only 38.6 percent, including 8-of-24 in the second half. It was a physical battle that saw the Cougars go to the free-throw line 43 times.
Just like he has in other MWC games, Fredette absorbed plenty of punishment. He was knocked around by CSU's defense, and he knocked down 14-of-16 shots from the free throw line.
"I'm going to play aggressive, no matter what," said Fredette, who also had seven turnovers. As a team, BYU committed 19 turnovers.
With such a huge game on the horizon, BYU probably would have preferred having an easier time of it Wednesday. But the Rams weren't content to be a harmless appetizer before the main course. They rallied from a 14-point first-half deficit and trailed by just two, 48-46, early in the second half. CSU, led by Andy Ogide's 25 points and Adam Nigon's four 3-pointers, hung with BYU most of the way.
Colorado State (18-9, 8-5) entered the contest looking to pull a major upset and earn some big style points for NCAA Tournament consideration.
"We've had other quality wins, but this certainly was a chance for one the whole country would have paid attention to," said CSU coach Tim Miles. "I thought our guys did a great job of coming in and giving themselves a chance.. We had plenty of chances, but we didn't do enough."
Though disappointed in the outcome, Miles was encouraged by the way his team played.
"I loved their effort. Our kids battled," he said. "You can't get them down. They kept battling and battling. It was a physical game. It had to be a physical game."
Fredette and the Cougars weren't surprised by the Rams' resiliency in a hostile environment.
"They're a team that's fighting for their life right now, trying to get an NCAA Tournament berth," Fredette said. "If they could win this game, that would be huge for them and could have put them over the top. A team that's desperate is a team that's very dangerous. That's what coach always says to us. We knew they would keep fighting back every time we hit them with a good run."
"The game was exactly how we thought it would play out as far as how physical it was and how competitive it was. Both teams played with a lot of emotion," said BYU coach Dave Rose.
The Cougars led by just five, 72-67, with a little more than five minutes remaining. While Fredette scored 10 of BYU's final 15 points, Jackson Emery came up with key steals late in the game that gave the Cougars the cushion they needed.
"Emery made three terrific, unbelievable plays there at the end," Miles said.
Emery chipped in 11 points and had three rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot.
BYU sophomore forward Brandon Davies recorded a double-double, with 14 points and 15 rebounds. Twelve of his points came from the free-throw line.
"Brandon played with a lot of energy and a lot of passion," Rose said. "(CSU's) frontline is very good, a very good offensive frontline. They were very physical with him but he just kept playing. He got himself to the free-throw line and converted at the line. But, really, the way he rebounded was impressive."
BYU will need more of the same kind of performance from Davies on Saturday at San Diego State. And the Cougars, especially Fredette, will need to shoot much better than they did against Colorado State.