Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Suddenly, BYU finds itself all alone in second place in the West Coast Conference standings.
The Cougars, fresh off an 83-76 victory at San Francisco Thursday, trail first-place Gonzaga by just one game as they get set to visit Santa Clara Saturday (8 p.m. MST, Root Sports) at the Leavey Center.
It’s been quite a turnaround for a team that dropped its first two conference games and was in last place not too long ago.
To start the month of January, BYU was stuck in a four-game losing streak. Now, the Cougars have won four in a row.
While BYU (12-7, 4-2) will get a crack at the ’Zags (15-3, 5-1) next Saturday in Spokane, for now, it is trying to build some momentum on the road amid a four-game road swing.
Going into Thursday’s game at War Memorial Gymnasium, the Cougars had dropped four consecutive true road games. Two of those losses came at Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine to open WCC play.
“The most important thing that our staff is trying to work through with the guys is that you don’t lose confidence to win on the road,” said BYU coach Dave Rose. “That’s where the preseason hurt us the most — we didn’t get a lot of road wins. We got smacked the first two league games. But (the victory at USF) was a huge win for our guys and makes our game Saturday even more important.”
The Cougars rallied from a three-point halftime deficit in the second half against the Dons. BYU shot 55 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes and nailed 26 of 31 free throws.
Santa Clara (10-10, 3-4) fell at home to San Diego Thursday night, 69-66.
Saturday’s game features the two top scorers in WCC play — BYU’s Tyler Haws, who averages 21.5 points per game, and the Broncos’ Brandon Clark, who averages 20.7. Clark has scored 20 or more points in six of seven WCC games this season.
Meanwhile, freshman Jared Brownridge ranks No. 15 in the country in 3-point field goal percentage (45.6 percent). He averages 2.9 3-pointers per game.
BYU freshman Eric Mika returned to action Thursday after being sidelined for two straight games with a hip contusion. Mika, who scored 11 points and grabbed four rebounds against USF, was banged up again with an apparent leg injury in the second half, but later returned before fouling out.
“It was a little scary when he went down,” Rose said. “I was glad to hear that he was ready to go again.”
“I still think his knee’s bothering him a little bit, but he gave us some huge minutes,” guard Matt Carlino said of Mika. “He needs to keep improving. He’s young and he gets down on himself a lot. I’m always trying to encourage him out there because he’s such a good player. He’s really tough on himself. He improves all the time. We need him out there. He was good for us (Thursday night).”
NOTES: BYU held practice Friday in the Golden State Warriors’ facility. The Cougars are giving up just 67 points per game in their last four contests, compared to an average of 87 points in the previous four games. In WCC games, BYU is averaging 34.3 points per game in the first half and 48.2 points per game in the second half. BYU guard Skyler Halford hit just 3 of 9 shots from the field Thursday but knocked down 11 of 12 shots from the free-throw line and finished with 18 points. BYU guard Kyle Collinsworth is one of only three players in the nation ranked in the top 125 in both assists and rebounds per game, along with UCLA’s Kyle Anderson and Vermont’s Brian Voelkel.
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