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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars guard/forward Brock Zylstra (13) grabs a lose ball in the West Coast Conference quarterfinals in Las Vegas Friday, March 2, 2012.
We knew that it would be a competitive game.They're a team playing for their lives. We were more aggressive in the second half and that helped us keep the lead. —Noah Hartsock

LAS VEGAS — The ideal scenario for No. 3 seed BYU on Friday night would have called for an easy win and for injured forward Noah Hartsock to play sparingly in the quarterfinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament so he could be fresh for Saturday night's semifinal showdown against No. 2 Gonzaga.

But it didn't work out that way.

No. 6 seed University of San Diego gave the Cougars all they wanted, and BYU needed Hartsock to survive and advance.

Playing on a gimpy knee, Hartsock delivered, coming off the bench to score a game-high 19 points, including 15 in the second half, and helping lead BYU to a thrilling 73-68 victory over the Toreros at the Orleans Arena.

Fittingly, Hartsock grabbed the final rebound of the game, with 6.5 seconds left, then was fouled. Hartsock calmly drilled both free throws to seal the win.

Coach Dave Rose wasn't surprised to watch Hartsock rise up in the face of adversity.

"This kid is as tough as any player I've been around," Rose said. "You look at Noah's history, and when he's challenged with an injury, he's been good."

The Cougars improved to 25-7 on the season while San Diego fell to 13-18. BYU faces Gonzaga University in the WCC Tournament semifinals on Saturday (9 p.m., MST, ESPN2).

Hartsock knocked down 8 of 13 of his field goal attempts, though he missed his last three.

"Coming into the game, I knew (the knee) wouldn't be 100 percent," Hartsock said, who credited team trainers for getting him ready to play. "I was glad I was able to produce. My knee started to feel better as the game went on."

BYU swept San Diego in the regular season, as the Cougars crushed the Toreros in Provo by 36 points on New Year's Eve, then defeated them in San Diego a couple of weeks later by 19.

Friday was a much different story — the scrappy, gritty Toreros were fighting to keep their season going.

"We knew that it would be a competitive game," Hartsock said. "They're a team playing for their lives. We were more aggressive in the second half, and that helped us keep the lead."

San Diego seized its first lead of the game on its first possession of the second half, 36-34.

After Hartsock, who was replaced in the starting lineup by Brock Zylstra, came off the bench early in the second half, he scored two quick buckets to put the Cougars ahead, 44-40, then he and Davies, who picked up his third personal foul with 15:27 left, combined to score nine straight BYU points. A Davies 3-pointer — the first of his career — with 14 minutes remaining propelled the Cougars to a 53-47 advantage.

Moments later, Hartsock recorded a blocked shot and guard Matt Carlino converted on the other end with a 3-pointer as BYU went up, 56-50.

But San Diego refused to end its season quietly.

Back-to-back buckets by Hartsock with less than six minutes remaining gave BYU its biggest lead, 68-59, with 5:38 left. Those were BYU's final two field goals of the game, with the final five points scored from the free-throw line.

From there, the Cougars held on.

"I was proud of our players. It was a hard-fought game," Rose said. "We were able to make a play or two at the end. It's not very often that we've been unable to score a field goal in the final 5:38 and still win the game. It was a really big win for our team."

Brock Zylstra started for BYU in place of Hartsock, and the move paid immediate dividends, as he scored the Cougars' first seven points, including a 3-pointer. He poured in a game-high 10 points in the first half.

BYU took an early 11-4 lead but found itself plagued by foul trouble. Brandon Davies, Charles Abouo, Matt Carlino and Nate Austin picked up two fouls apiece in the first half. Davies played just eight minutes over the first 20 minutes.

A 6-0 run by the Toreros tied the game at 24-24, but the Cougars responded with a 7-0 run of their own, which included a 3-pointer by Anson Winder.

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But San Diego outscored BYU 10-3 over the final four minutes of the half and tied the game again, 34-34.

Hartsock, wearing a brace on his injured left knee, entered the game at the 15:02 mark to rousing cheers of BYU fans. He scored four points in the first half.

San Diego outscored the Cougars in the paint, 20-10, in the first half, and outrebounded BYU, 16-13.

Now, the Cougars take on Gonzaga, which defeated BYU in Spokane, Wash., last week.

"It's really exciting for the fans," Rose said. "When we joined the league, these are the games everybody anticipated."

Email: jeffc@desnews.com