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Associated Press
San Francisco's Avery Johnson, left, and BYU's Matt Carlino gesture toward the referees during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Francisco, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)

SAN FRANCISCO — Thanks in large part to an inspired performance by Matt Carlino, BYU ensured that it didn't leave its NCAA Tournament at-large hopes in San Francisco.

The freshman guard put the "Lin" in Carlino, pouring in a career-high, and game-high, 30 points — including the game-winner with 18.9 seconds remaining — to help lead the Cougars to a thrilling 85-84 victory Thursday night at War Memorial Gym.

"I was ready to make a play because they hadn't really stopped me all game," Carlino said of his final bucket. "I just wanted to make the last play."

Going into the contest, Carlino had hit a woeful 4-of-34 shots from 3-point territory in his previous seven games. He was 4-of-6 in the first half from behind the arc, and he scored 22 in the first 20 minutes, tying his career-high.

But his biggest shot came with under 20 seconds remaining, with the Cougars trailing for the first time all night.

Rashad Green gave USF its first lead of the game, 84-83, with 40 seconds remaining. But BYU maintained its composure.

"We just wanted to make sure we didn't get discouraged and get our heads down," said coach Dave Rose.

The Dons' lead lasted all of 21 seconds. That's because Carlino drove to the hoop and drained a floater to put BYU on top for good.

"We had to score. We needed the bucket," Carlino said. "Then it was all about getting a stop after that. Thankfully, we got it. That was big."

Indeed. After Carlino's shot found the bottom of the net, the Dons still had a chance to win it.

Two chances, actually. Angelo Coloiaro and Green both missed open shots in the final 10 seconds as the Cougars hung on for the victory.

"I was scared because when (opposing) teams take their first lead with seconds to go, you usually lose," Carlino said. "I was biting my nails at the end. Luckily, we got a big win."

BYU improved to 22-6 overall and 10-3 in West Coast Conference play. USF dropped to 17-11 and 7-7.

The Cougars nearly squandered an eight-point lead with 3:34 remaining, as the Dons refused to go away.

"It was just down to the wire. In the end, everyone was making plays," said Noah Hartsock, who scored 16 points. "San Francisco would score, then we would score. It was back-and-forth the whole night. We just made great plays in the end."

Prior to Carlino's last-second heroics, Hartsock had a shot to help the Cougars re-take the lead with 27.9 seconds left, but his shot was blocked. Hartsock then fouled Perris Blackwell, who missed the front-end of a one-and-one, setting up Carlino's game-winner.

Carlino jumpstarted the Cougars right after the opening tip, scoring 16 points in the game's first six minutes. Carlino drilled four 3-pointers during that span, including a couple from Ghirardelli Square.

At the 12-minute mark, Carlino had 20 points and BYU was up, 30-19. But a 9-1 run by USF made it 31-30 before the Cougars pulled away again after scoring seven unanswered points.

But every time it appeared that BYU was taking control, the Dons battled back.

USF cut its deficit to three points, 40-37. Then Abouo drilled a 3-pointer, followed by a steal and layup by Carlino that tied his career-high, 22. On the next sequence, Carlino assisted Anson Winder on a layup to give the Cougars a 10-point lead.

The Dons scored the final five points of the half as BYU lead at intermission, 49-44.

Both teams shot 57 percent in the first half.

USF enjoyed balanced scoring lead by Caloiaro, who poured in 23 points. Blackwell had 18 and Cody Doolin chipped in 16, including four 3-pointers.

BYU visits Santa Clara Saturday (5 p.m., MST, ESPNU).

email: jeffc@desnews.com