SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Don't look now, but the West Coast Conference championship race has just gotten a little tighter.

And a lot more intriguing.

Three weeks ago, when BYU fell at home to Saint Mary's, it appeared the Cougars were completely out of the WCC title hunt.

But BYU defeated Gonzaga at home on Feb. 2, while the league-leading Gaels have lost two of their last three games, including Wednesday's setback to Loyola Marymount.

"With Loyola's big win at Saint Mary's, it kind of brings everything closer together," said coach Dave Rose. "For us, we got into this a couple of weeks ago, where every game is really, really important. I don't think it changes, but it does give us, mentally, a little bit more of an edge."

In league play, the Gaels remain on top with a 12-2 record, followed by the Zags (11-2), the Cougars (10-3), and the Lions (10-4). BYU visits Gonzaga next Thursday.

The final standings are important, because the top two teams earn a bye in the WCC Tournament until the semifinals.

Amid all of the focus on the top of the WCC standings, BYU visits Santa Clara, the team that's mired at the bottom of the standings Saturday (5 p.m., MST, ESPNU).

The Broncos are the only winless team in conference play. They've dropped a school-record 14 consecutive games, with their last victory coming on Dec. 29 against Eastern Michigan.

But don't expect the Cougars to let their guard down against struggling Santa Clara. Especially not after BYU's dramatic, 85-84 victory Thursday at San Francisco.

"This was a really important game for us," Rose said after the game, which featured guard Matt Carlino's career-high, 30-point scoring outburst and his game-winning shot with 18.9 seconds remaining. "We've earned the right for this game to be really important. Our guys responded."

Rose had expected a tough battle against the Dons.

"You never know how games are going to turn out as far as the score or the difference, but I knew it would be a really hard-fought game," he said. "This is a good win for our guys. It's one of the first times where we got behind late in the game and had to come back and make a basket to score and win. We got behind at Virginia Tech, but we got the lead with three or four minutes left and then had to hang on. This time, we actually needed a basket to win and got it. That's a good sign."

Meanwhile, also on Thursday night, Santa Clara lost at home to Gonzaga, 73-62.

Since Monday, the Broncos have been without guard Kevin Foster, the WCC's leading scorer, who will be sidelined for the remainder of the season as a result of his Jan. 21 arrest for driving under the influence.

Against Gonzaga, Santa Clara's Evan Roquemore stepped up, scoring 21 points.

Interestingly, Bulldog coach Mark Few said the Broncos are tougher to defend without Foster in the lineup.

"Without Kevin Foster, they're much more unpredictable," Few said Thursday night. "They were easier to defend with the one guy. If you look at their games, they play everybody tough and they're still playing hard."

Cougars on the air

BYU (22-6, 10-3) at Santa Clara (8-18, 0-13)

Today, 5 p.m., MST

Leavey Center, Santa Clara, Calif.


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