PROVO — Found: BYU’s basketball team.
The Cougars seemed to be missing in action in their first two West Coast Conference games in Southern California, falling to Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.
But Saturday night, playing at the Marriott Center for the first time in more than three weeks, the Cougars looked more like their old selves — and snapped a four-game losing streak — in dismantling San Diego, 87-53, for their first WCC victory of the season.
“It was a great effort from our guys,” said coach Dave Rose. “The focus they had at practice the last three days, and the intensity and urgency they played with in practice, carried over into the game.”
Added Rose: “We know how we want to play. This is how we want to play.”
So what was the difference?
For starters, Rose made a change in his starting lineup, replacing Matt Carlino with Skyler Halford, and it was a stroke of genius.
Making his first career start, Halford poured in a career-high 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the floor, including 4-of-8 shooting from 3-point territory.
“When you get in a groove, and shots start falling, the basket gets bigger and bigger,” Halford said. “My teammates were great at driving and kicking and getting me open looks. I was just fortunate to be the one in the open spot.”
Halford also played impressive defense against San Diego star Johnny Dee, who hit just 2 of 10 shots from the floor and finished with eight points.
“He did a great job defensively,” Rose said. “We’ve played San Diego quite a few times with Johnny Dee. I think Sky did as good a job of anybody we’ve had of chasing him around and making it tough on him.”
"He is racing around the floor all the time,” Halford said of Dee. “It was a big team effort containing him."
As a team, the Cougars were outstanding defensively, holding the Toreros to 34 percent shooting, including 2 of 17 from behind the arc.
“Defensively, it was our best effort of the year,” Rose said. “Hopefully we can build on this.”
The Cougars’ intense man-to-man defense baffled the Toreros, and it was a defensive effort Rose wants to see more of in the coming weeks.
“I really think this team has identified themselves with their offense. Tonight, it was totally different,” Rose said. “We were a defensive team playing with urgency on every defensive possession. We need to bottle that and make that become a huge part of the identity of this group.”
Offensively, the Cougars shared the ball (25 assists on 31 made baskets), and knocked down 53 percent of their shots from the field.
Besides Halford, three other BYU players scored in double figures — Tyler Haws (17), Eric Mika (13) and Kyle Collinsworth (12). Collinsworth also added seven rebounds and eight assists.
And this was against the WCC’s top-rated defensive team.
At one point, BYU led by as many as 37 with seven minutes left in the game.
Rose said the decision to start Halford was based on the way he played in the second half of the loss at Pepperdine last Monday, which was one of the few bright spots of that road trip.
Now, Halford is no longer a secret in the WCC.
“Things will change for Sky now because people will see how effective he can be,” Rose said.
With the win, BYU improved to 9-7 overall and 1-2 in league play. San Diego fell to 9-7 and 0-3.
The Cougars jumped ahead of the Toreros in the opening minutes, 15-10, before San Diego rallied to take a 17-15 lead.
From there, BYU took control of the game, outscoring San Diego, 26-6, over the final 11:30 of the first half, a stretch that included three Halford 3-pointers. The Cougars held a commanding 41-23 advantage at halftime.
BYU hosts Pepperdine Thursday (7 p.m., BYUtv).
NOTES: Announced attendance was 15,760. Haws scored in double figures for the 29th consecutive game. He is one game away from tying Kresimir Cosic for the 10th longest streak in school history of consecutive games in double figures.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company