During a timeout with 7:41 to go, and BYU leading by 17, forward Ron Selleaze could contain his enthusiasm no longer. He smiled widely, looked at a reporter on press row and mouthed the words, "We're going to the tournament, baby!"
Not necessarily. But the Cougars did avoid being eliminated from contention for the final spot in the WAC Tournament, Thursday night, beating Air Force 79-60 at the Marriott Center. If things go as expected for both UTEP and Air Force, the Cougars need only to beat UTEP in El Paso on Feb. 28 to meet their goal of making the tournament. However, the Cougars haven't won a WAC road game since beating Wyoming over two years ago."It makes the rest of the year meaningful - until some team - UTEP or Air Force - wins some games and then it's over for us. Until that happens, we're still playing in the WAC Tournament," said coach Steve Cleveland.
The win not only kept their hopes alive but ended a nine-game losing streak.
The week leading up to the victory wasn't ordinary by any means. The Cougars had planned on not practicing Monday, but after losing badly to Wyoming this past Saturday, they determined they could use the work. When they arrived at the Marriott Center for practice, they spent the early part of the session in the dark - something they've been accused of more than once this year. The maintenance crew was unaware the Cougars had decided to practice, so it took several minutes for the lights to go on.
Both before and after the lights went on they worked primarily on defense, with no basketballs. That wasn't because they couldn't get into the equipment room; it was because they wanted to work on defense alone. They repeated the drills in other practices this week, leaving the basketballs on the carts.
"What it boils down to is we really didn't want to go through any more practices any more without any balls in the gym," said Selleaze. "That's why we came out so hard tonight."
Whatever the reason, the Cougars were ready and waiting once the game began. They jumped to a 20-10 lead and never allowed the Falcons to go ahead. BYU was up 34-26 at the half.
"You would think we would be all nervous, but we were relaxed. It was good to be home. We were just glad to have a game that the fans had something to cheer about," said forward Mekeli Wesley.
But unlike most of their previous games, the Cougars managed to avoid their usual second-half scoring drought. They built their lead to 12, then stopped the Falcons' comeback attempt with good perimeter defense. Danny Bower, who was replaced in the starting lineup, came off the bench to score 13 second-half points, including consecutive 3-pointers near the middle of the half. The Cougars even managed a few minutes celebrating - something they haven't done for weeks - when center Jarkko Ahlbom got a breakaway dunk. Selleaze rushed over to bump chests with Ahlbom as Wesley, who finished with 18 points, pumped his palms in the air.
Said Wesley, "We were just trying to figure out what it felt like to win."
Selleaze led all scorers with 23 points.
That done, the Cougars now move into the rest of their schedule. They host UNLV Saturday. Curiously, win or lose they'll still have a shot at the WAC championship unless Air Force (Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming) or UTEP (New Mexico, Utah) scores an upset.
BYU shot 43 percent from the field, its best since shooting 45 percent in a loss at Air Force on Jan. 24. The Cougars improved to 7-19 and 2-9, while Air Force dropped to 9-13 and 2-9.
Said Cleveland, "It's been a long four weeks."