PROVO — BYU coach Dave Rose wasn't sure exactly what to expect when his team hosted Portland Saturday afternoon at the Marriott Center.
The Cougars were coming off a tough loss at Gonzaga two nights earlier, and they had to take on the Pilots without injured senior Noah Hartsock — on an emotional Senior Day.
"You hope they respond," Rose said of his players.
Well, they responded by seizing a big lead early against the Pilots, then holding on for a 76-66 victory in front of a sellout crowd at the Marriott Center.
Forward Brandon Davies finished with a game-high 25 points, Brock Zylstra added 20, including four 3-pointers, and senior Charles Abouo chipped in with 16.
"That was a really big win for our team," Rose said. "I'm happy for our guys. We had some guys step up and really play well. It was a hard-fought competitive game, and I'm glad we got the win. Now we'll look forward to the tournament."
The Cougars (24-7, 12-4) secured third place in their inaugural season in the West Coast Conference, and the No. 3 seed in the WCC Tournament, which tips off next week at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
BYU faces the winner of Thursday's Pepperdine-San Diego matchup in the WCC quarterfinals on Friday (9 p.m., ESPNU).
Though Hartsock, who is nursing a knee sprain, was unable to play Saturday, the Cougars are hopeful that he will return to the court next week.
"I'm getting more flexibility back in my knee and everything's feeling a lot better," Hartsock said. "Time is going to be the best healer. I feel very confident I'll be ready to go again."
Certainly, BYU could have used Hartsock Saturday.
How much did the Cougars miss him?
"We're probably twice as good with him in the lineup," Abouo said. "I don't want to admit that, but we're that much better with him."
Hartsock was in uniform Saturday, sitting on the bench, but unable to play.
"The discussion Noah had with us was, should he dress or not dress? I left it up to him," Rose said. "I'm glad he dressed. It was tough seeing him on the bench and not being able to put him in in some tough spots. He's meant so much to this team. He's meant so much to our program."
One of those tough spots came late when the Cougars' 17-point second-half lead dwindled to six points with under four minutes remaining.
That's when BYU's other senior, Abouo, took over, scoring five straight points as part of a 9-0 run that sealed the win.
"Charles has been our go-to guy for a few years," Rose said. "He plays the two, the three and the four, and he's been involved in a lot of wins. He definitely made some big plays for us tonight."
"I just wanted to be aggressive down the stretch," Abouo said. "That's how all of us were looking at it."
The game didn't start well for Abouo, who struggled shooting early on.
"I got emotional. I never thought I would cry," Abouo said of the pregame ceremony that honored the seniors. "I was telling everyone it wasn't a big deal, Senior Day. I was bawlin'. Then I came out with a lot of energy. I've never air-balled that many shots in my life."
Still, BYU grabbed an early 16-4 lead, then extended that to 36-21, thanks in part to three 3-pointers by Zylstra.
"I'm really happy with the lift Brock gave us," Rose said. "Brock was able to play a lot of minutes for us."
Portland's Ryan Nicholas poured in 19 points and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds. The Pilots didn't allow the Cougars to run away with the game in the second half.
"We have a resilient group," said Portland coach Eric Reveno. "Early on when they got easy buckets and went up 16-4, I thought they were doing things that were preventable, such as when they were outrunning us on the floor. But we put a stop to that and did well at times."
Portland fell to 6-23 and 3-13 on the season.
Now it's on to the WCC Tournament, and the Cougars don't want to see Hartsock on the bench again.
"I feel for Noah because he'll always remember his last home game as a game where he didn't get to play," Rose said. "But his team got a win. … My heart will always kind of hurt for Noah because he meant so much to us and he didn't get to play in this game. Hopefully we'll get him back."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company