LAS VEGAS — BYU assistant coach Mark Pope sat courtside Thursday night at Orleans Arena watching Loyola Marymount — which finished in last place in the league standings in the regular season — rally from a 13-point second-half deficit to defeat Portland in the first round of the West Coast Conference tournament.
The Lions entered the tournament having lost 14 of their previous 16 games.
Yet Pope wasn’t surprised by the outcome. This is March, after all, and anything can happen.
A year ago, LMU was also the bottom seed in the tournament, after having won only one regular-season league game, and advanced to the tournament semifinals.
“They’ve been really good in this tournament,” Pope said. “They’re athletic. They play hard. They’re really aggressive. They’re always in attack mode.”
Yes, LMU coach Max Good is working his March magic again in Las Vegas, and the No. 10-seeded Lions will be looking to upset the No. 2-seeded Cougars Saturday (3:30 p.m. MST, BYUtv) in the WCC quarterfinals.
“When they play this way, they’re a really good team,” Pope said of LMU. “I think they’re confident right now. They remember how well they played last year here. It’s going to be a real challenge. Max is great. There’s no better. He’s a terrific guy and a great coach. He does a nice job with his team.”
BYU is sitting on the proverbial bubble, looking to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The Cougars (21-10) fell in the WCC quarterfinals last year against San Diego and ended up in the National Invitation Tournament, halting a streak of six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
BYU hasn’t won a conference tournament since 2001.
The way coach Dave Rose sees it, in order to get back to the NCAAs, his team needs to go 3-0 in Las Vegas.
"I think we probably have to win the tournament to get in," Rose said. "That's what our mindset is, so let's take this first game — that's the most important thing. Control what you can control. The sure bet is that if we win (the tournament), then we're in a nice spot."
LMU (13-18), on the other hand, is a team playing with house money, with nothing to lose.
“All we wanted was a chance at the very end,” Good said after his team edged Portland, 67-64.
LMU senior guard Anthony Ireland wasn’t ready to play the final game of his collegiate career.
“(Portland) hit us first and it took us awhile to respond,” Ireland said. “Saturday we’ve got to figure out a way to fix that.”
Freshman Evan Payne scored a game-high 19 points while Ireland and Nick Stover each scored 14.
Against the Pilots, the Lions forced 20 turnovers, and 30 of their 67 points came as a result of Portland turnovers.
“They have the best steal-to-turnover ratio in our league right now,” Pope said. “They’re good at getting teams to turn the ball over.”
“I hate playing defensive defense,” Good explained. “I like to play offensive defense and offensive offense.”
Good, meanwhile, knows his team will have to deal with the Cougars’ fast-paced style of play.
“BYU’s not the quickest team in the country, but they’re one of the fastest,” Good said. “There’s a difference between quick and fast. They run like a herd of thundering horses. They play downhill. They aren’t extremely quick, but they are really fast and really well-coached.”
Under the new tournament format, LMU didn't have to play Friday, and will have a full day to prepare for BYU.
Due to a scheduling quirk, the two teams haven’t played since Jan. 11 in Provo. The Cougars won that one, 91-68, but they fell to the Lions in their WCC opener on Dec. 28 in Los Angeles, 87-76.
“We haven’t seen each other for a while," Pope said. "It will be fun."
After the Portland win, Good became emotional talking about his players.
“I can’t wait to get to the gym to see these guys every day,” Good said, his eyes filled with tears. “They grind and they grind and they grind.”
LMU's goal is to grind out another upset Saturday, hoping to keep its season alive for at least one more game.
West Coast Conference tournament
No. 10 Loyola Marymount (13-18) vs. No. 2 BYU (21-10)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., MST
Radio: KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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