When the final buzzer sounded on BYU's basketball season Saturday in the Huntsman Center, it came down to this: Arizona was a better team.
The overachieving Cougars won 21 games, including 10 of their last 13, the WAC Tournament, and a first-round NCAA upset of Virginia, but you can only get so far on poise, pluck and patience.Even in their bowing-out scene, however, the Cougars provided a little drama, a few moments of hope to the many BYU fans - and others - who cheered them to a one-point second-half lead before the eventual 76-61 loss to a team widely deemed to be of Final Four caliber.
BYU Coach Roger Reid was not disappointed with his team's effort.
"We knew we had to be flawless, had to have some calls go our way to beat them," he said. "They just wore us down."
Arizona coach Lute Olson saw it the same way. "We were physically stronger," he said. "We wore them down."
But it wasn't easy.
The Cougars trailed 35-32 several minutes into the second half when BYU center Shawn Bradley put up a short hook that was goaltended by Arizona center Brian Williams. On BYU's next possession, Bradley hit a 12-foot turnaround for a 36-35 lead and a boisterous response from the crowd.
"When we got the lead, I thought I could see a little disorganization on their part," said Reid.
A timeout settled the Wildcats down, however, and they charged back into a 40-36 lead on a three-point play by Ed Stokes and two free throws by Sean Rooks. More importantly, both fouls were charged to Steve Schreiner and he went to the bench with four fouls.
The Cougars, meanwhile, were being uncharacteristically impatient and committing turnovers.
"We took a couple quick shots that got us down," said BYU's Gary Trost. "We should have been more patient, like we were in the first half."
Reid then decided to try a three-guard lineup, and Olson countered by sending in freshman guard Khalid Reeves, one of the nation's top recruits last year. It proved to be the move that would put BYU away for good, as Reeves was able to do what Arizona's starting guards hadn't done much - penetrate. On successive trips Reeves got the ball to Arizona big guys for three-point plays, and before you can say "We're going to Seattle," the Wildcats made a 15-4 run and held a 50-40 lead and it was all over but the free throws.
"When Arizona gets ahead, they're really good at controlling the game," said BYU guard Nathan Call, and that's quite a compliment from the chief controller on a team noted for its tempo control.
Reid kept trying, of course, countering with a big-guy lineup of Bradley, Schreiner and Gary Trost. That one worked for a minute or two, until Bradley got his fifth foul reaching in on Stokes after a rebound.
Any last-gasp chance BYU had sat down with Bradley.
Olson, however, apparently didn't feel secure about the victory until Reid, with 57 seconds left and down by 15, emptied his bench. Then Olson did the same.
Early in the game, it didn't look like BYU would be in a position to provide any second-half excitement. They fell behind 13-4 in the opening minutes while missing their first five shots from the field. BYU trailed the entire half, coming within three several times before settling for the 30-27 halftime deficit.
"You go in at halftime and you've shot 33 percent and you're still ahead by three and you should be pleased," said Olson. "I felt it was just a matter of time until the shots started dropping."
The Cougars did come out of the game with some defensive numbers they could feel good about. They held the Wildcats, who shot 51.7 percent on the season, to 43.1 percent, and they outrebounded a team that was rarely beaten on the boards this season, 42-34. And the Cougs blocked nine shots, despite only two by Bradley.
On the downside, BYU shot just 40 percent for the game and committed 13 turnovers. The leading scorer for the Cougs was Call, with 12, while Bradley and Trost each had 10. Call also had seven assists, Trost 11 rebounds.
The guy doing most of the damage for the Wildcats was Williams, a junior who has "NBA future" written all over him. He scored 24 points on nine of 18 from the field, with 11 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Bradley, typically gracious in defeat, had nothing but praise for Williams.
"He's a great player," Bradley said. "He's strong and intense and has a beautiful shot."
The only other Wildcat in double figures was Reeves, with 11.
Afterward, the coaches swapped words of praise. Saying that Arizona was "definitely better than anyone in our conference," Reid suggested it was a shame that the Wildcats and UNLV ended up in the same NCAA bracket, which means one of them won't reach the Final Four. For now, Arizona advances to Seattle, where it will play Seton Hall.
Olson, meanwhile, said of BYU, which ended its season 21-14: "They're an impressive group, they have some good young people, they're going to be a great team when they get Shawn (Bradley) back from a mission."
For Bradley, of course, this was the last game for a couple of years, as it was for starting forward Kenneth Roberts and backup forward Jeff Campbell. It was also the end of the careers of Schreiner and Moon.
That means Reid has one starter - Nathan Call - back for next season, and another rebuilding job. Then again, that's exactly the situation Reid faced this season, when he had one starter back and lots of new faces. The Cougs lost a lot of games while they were learning how to play, but as Reid kept reminding them:
"People remember where you ended up, not where you started."
For BYU, a loss to Arizona wasn't too bad a place to end up.