SAN DIEGO — For the first time all season, No. 7 BYU found itself in an unfamiliar role, as an underdog, against No. 6 San Diego State.
But Saturday afternoon, before a sellout crowd of 12,414 at Viejas Arena, and a national television audience, the Cougars were perfectly comfortable not being the favorite.
BYU took a giant step toward a Mountain West Conference regular-season championship, and made a strong case for being a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, with a convincing 80-67 triumph over the Aztecs.
If the nation didn't know how good the Cougars were before, it does now.
As the buzzer sounded, guard Jimmer Fredette threw the ball skyward in jubilation before celebrating with his teammates in what can be considered the biggest regular-season victory in school history.
"We were just really, really excited to win this game," said Fredette, who scored a game-high 25 points. "It's a huge game. Everyone was picking San Diego State to win so we were coming in kind of as the underdogs. We realized that and knew we were going to have to battle to get that win and I thought our team did a great job of just making shots and getting rebounds, getting loose balls, doing things that we needed to do, and that's why it was an emotional win."
BYU (27-2, 13-1) is now in sole possession of first place in the MWC standings and it is sure to move up in the national polls next week. For San Diego State (27-2, 12-2), both of its losses this season have come at the hands of the Cougars. Just like that, the Aztecs' 18-game home winning streak was snapped.
"This was a big game for us. Everybody coming in to play us was the underdog and that we were supposed to protect what we had and where we were," said coach Dave Rose. "We got to play from the other side, where we were the underdog and I really thought our guys responded."
With so much at stake, the Aztecs, and their rabid fans, were determined not to let Fredette beat them again. Even without pouring in 43 points, like he did last month in Provo, Fredette beat them anyway, in different ways.
The national player-of-the-year candidate tied a career-high with nine assists, dishing the ball to teammates who consistently nailed big shots — particularly 3-pointers, as BYU knocked down 14-of-24 from 3-point range. While Fredette drained four 3-pointers, Charles Abouo (4) Noah Hartsock (3) and Jackson Emery (2) were also deadly from long distance. Abouo finished with 18 points while Hartsock chipped in 15.
"A lot of times (the Aztecs) were double-teaming me and I was getting my teammates the ball and they were wide open," Fredette said. "They are going to make shots if they are wide open. So that was the key. They paid for doubling me. It was great by my teammates to be able to make those shots."
"If you leave people wide open, they are going to make it, so we were just double-teaming Jimmer and he found the open man," said Aztec forward Billy White. "Sometimes they were wide open. Sometimes they made tough shots."
Amazingly, BYU trailed only once, at 2-0, in the opening minutes of the contest.
The Cougars built a 32-20 lead in the first half, but SDSU rallied to outscore BYU, 15-6, over the final seven minutes of the half to pull within three at halftime, 38-35.
Still, the Cougars were optimistic as they went into the locker room.
"We were happy with where we were at, but we understood we kind of let them back in the game with easy transition baskets. That was our goal, to make them earn every shot in the second half," said Emery, who scored 13 points. "You've got to understand when you go on the road, teams are going to make their runs. The biggest thing is, you've got to keep fighting and make runs of your own and be consistent for 40 minutes. We did a terrific job."
Every time the Aztecs started to close the gap, the Cougars widened their lead with another 3-pointer, much to SDSU's dismay.
"When they had to make a basket, somebody made a basket and it was never the same somebody," said Aztec coach Steve Fisher. "That's a mark of a really good team."
And that's what Fredette hopes the nation took away from this game.
"I've been telling everybody all year long that it's not just me. It's our team," he said. "I keep telling them if they are going to double-team me, I'm going to try to get it to my teammates and they are going to make shots and that's why we have been winning games this whole year. If they don't double-team me, then it's my time to go be aggressive and score the basketball until they have to. That's what makes our team good. I'm glad that more people were able to see that, that our team is very good."
While BYU was the underdog Saturday, the target on its back just got a lot bigger.
The Cougars return home next week to close out the regular season with games against New Mexico (Wednesday) and Wyoming (Saturday).