BYU's first season in the post-Roger Reid era ended with a dose of disappointment and a dash of optimism. The Cougars were just getting used to winning when it was time to close up shop and go home. Guard Brian Dignan had the ball in the final seconds and, seeing his way blocked by a horde of Tulsa players, handed off to Danny Bower. Bower tried to get off a shot, but the ball was slapped away as he drew up.
It was time to call it a season.For most of Tuesday afternoon at the Thomas and Mack Center, the Cougars held out hope there would be another improbable finish. But this time there was no such luck. Tulsa built a comfortable lead then held off a late BYU rush for a 59-56 first-round win in the WAC Tournament. That left Tulsa to worry over what it will do about New Mexico on Thursday and BYU to worry about next season. The Cougars had failed in their attempt at a second straight week of upsets. Still, they did avoid being laughed out of town and even managed to scare the cockiness out of Tulsa before exiting.
"We hung in there," said coach Steve Cleveland. "We had a chance tonight."
If the Cougars accomplished nothing else this season, they got back to the business of being a real college basketball team. Not necessarily a good one but at least a real one. By season's end they no longer came with a laugh track. After going 1-25 last season, they improved to 9-21 this season. It wasn't enough to get them anywhere important, but it was nine times as good as they were. They even ended the season believing they were supposed to win.
"There was not a game we played this year when we weren't a significant underdog," said Cleveland. "But there was never a time when we gave up."
BYU's final three weeks added intrigue to an otherwise dismal year. After losing nine games in a row and seeing their chances of making the WAC Tournament almost disappear, the Cougars won three of their last four regular-season games. That set them up against Tulsa in Tuesday's tournament opener.
As had become their recent custom, they put up a surprisingly strong front, forcing Tulsa to sweat it out at the end. Though the Golden Hurricanes led by 13 with 9:09 to go in the game, they had to hold off a furious rush. Tulsa went the final 3:40 of the game without making a field goal.
But in the end, the Cougars were flat out of miracles. Their up-and-down season had finally come to an end.
"I feel like I've been through the ringer," said forward Ron Selleaze. "Now I have to just go home, visit my family and look at the positives and look forward to next season."
BYU's exit ended an exhilarating run that had the Cougars thinking big. They beat Air Force, played UNLV close, beat New Mexico and UTEP and earned a spot in the WAC tourney. Once there, they found themselves matched against Tulsa, a team they played three times this season. Ironically, none of the games counted in the WAC standings, though both are in the conference.
Having beaten Tulsa on the road in January, the Cougars went into Tuesday's game feeling loose and confident. They were playing a team they had beaten, and they were on their best run of the season.
"Coach had us believing we would win all year, but the last three weeks we really bought into it," said Selleaze.
Unfortunately, Tulsa didn't. The Hurricanes came after the Cougars early, building their lead to 11 points in the first half. And though they led all the second half, the win didn't come without some anxious moments. With a minute to go, trailing by six, the Cougars collected six offensive rebounds in the same possession, culminating in Brett Jepsen's 3-point play.
"Seventeen offensive rebounds, and 10 of those were in the last minute," said Tulsa coach Bill Self.
But Bower's final shot never quite took off - which could also be said of the Cougars' season.
Thus, the Cougars finished up by having made a statement of some sort. It wasn't that they're back, or even that they're terribly proficient. Only that they're alive and progressing. And, finally, beating the Cougars is no longer as easy as it looks.
GAME NOTES: Guard Brian Hamilton left the game in the first half and didn't return. He sustained a concussion . . . Justin Weidauer finished with eight points in his final game as a Cougar . . . Selleaze's 17 points were high for the Cougars.