It wasn't like they were asking for the world. All they wanted was to be taken a little bit seriously. Consequently, they set just one tiny goal at the start of the season: to make it to the WAC Tournament.
And so on the final day of the regular season, the BYU Cougars met their goal. Saturday night at the Haskins Center, Mekeli Wesley made one of two free throws with seven-tenths of a second left in a third overtime to lead the Cougars to a 76-75 win over UTEP.They now move on to a Tuesday 1 p.m. (MST) game at the Thomas and Mack Center against Tulsa. The game will be televised by KSL Channel 5.
"I've had some overtime games in my career, but none was probably so important to a program and to a group of young men," said BYU coach Steve Cleveland. "We're not playing for the national championship, or even for the WAC championship, but this was our WAC championship. We told our kids the WAC Tournament doesn't start next Tuesday, for us it started today."
The win came at the end of a string of weird circumstances that had even the coaches shaking their heads. "That's the most psycho game I've ever seen," said the team's administrative assistant, Brian Santiago. "Everything that was supposed to happen didn't."
And everything that wasn't supposed to happen did.
It wasn't just a list of improbable plays, it was a cast of improbable characters. Brian Dignan, a 23-percent 3-point shooter, started the weirdness with 3:15 left in regulation and the Cougars trailing by one. With the shot clock running down, Dignan put up a 3-pointer that went in. But UTEP came back to tie the score with 1:07 to go, sending it into overtime.
Then things got even crazier. In the first overtime, with the game seemingly in the hands of the Miners, Bret Jepsen stepped to the free throw line for BYU. A 38-percent free-throw shooter, he made both shots with 15.8 seconds to go, tying the score and forcing a second overtime.
The teams were still knotted at 69 after playing 50 minutes, forcing a third overtime. This time Lance Archibald, who has made only five of 25 3-point shots all season, missed badly on a trey. This was the same Archibald who accidentally got left at the hotel for Saturday's shoot-around. He ended up hitching a ride with the radio broadcast team.
Neverthless, Archibald got the ball with the Cougars trailing 75-72 with 11.5 seconds remaining in the third overtime and tied the game.
"That's a shooter's mentality," said Archibald. "I had one look before, and when you're a shooter the thing you learn to do is if you miss, shoot the next time you get a look."
UTEP's Will Smith missed a driving shot, leaving the Cougars a chance with 4.4 seconds to go. Cleveland diagrammed a play to get the ball to Mekeli Wesley, who led the team in scoring with 31 points, and is 77 percent free throw shooter. Wesley took the ball in the backcourt and dribbled toward the basket, drawing a foul. His first shot was off the rim.
"I told the coach in the huddle, 'I want to take the last shot,"' said Wesley.
He added, "I missed the first, but it didn't really shake my confidence. The adrenalin was just going through my body. I was thinking I didn't want to play another overtime. My calves and thighs were cramping up."
The second was dead on, and the Cougars were headed to Las Vegas.
Although Saturday's game probably had no serious bearing on what will happen in the WAC Tournament, it pitted two teams determined to salvage something out of the season. The Cougars, now 9-20 overall and 4-10 in the WAC, where hoping merely to meet their goal. Meanwhile, UTEP, 12-14 and 3-11, was trying to end a free-fall that has lasted the last part of the season, totaling seven games.
Not that the teams aren't used to playing overtimes. In the last 13 years, they have played two triple-overtimes, one double overtime and five overtime games. When it comes to UTEP and BYU, they don't consider it a game unless they've nearly played into the wee hours of the morning.
So it was, two old rivals, who once upon a time were contending with one another for the WAC championship, were up to their old tricks - minus the suspense of being in any kind of a race.
Nevertheless, the Cougars weren't complaining.
"This game was filled with great plays, great mistakes, a lot of emotion, a lot of energy," said Cleveland. "My kids have hearts as big as watermelons."