LAS VEGAS — BYU found an old familiar mule to ride to victory in the quarterfinals of the Zappo.com West Coast Conference basketball tournament Friday night.
Noah Hartsock, playing on a sore leg, got a key rebound in the final six seconds and buried a pair of free throws to go with his game-high 19 points to lead the Cougars to a 73-68 win over San Diego. BYU (25-7) now plays Gonzaga Saturday night in the Orleans Arena.
This was a must-win game for the Cougars, a bubble team for the NCAA Selection Committee. Win at least one in the WCC tournament and it would be almost a done deal. Lose the first game and the committee would have a reason to leave BYU out.
No. 6 seed San Diego, the WCC's best 3-point squad, came in with some momentum after beating defending champion Gonzaga. No. 3 BYU had fresh legs since SD had to play Pepperdine on Thursday night.
Hartsock looked shaky at the start but in the second half with the score tied at 40, he scored 8 of BYU's next 10 points for the Cougars on a myriad of shots to give BYU a six-point advantage. His bucket to put BYU up 68-59 at 5:38 to go in the game was his 17th and gave the Cougars their biggest lead.
Brock Zylstra, who scored 20 points in BYU's final home game last Saturday, started in place of Hartsock at the power forward position and immediately impacted the game with seven quick points, including a pair of treys.
Hartsock, who missed BYU's last game and played just seven minutes against Gonzaga due to injuries to his knee and ankle, entered the game within five minutes and made his first shot attempt.
Hartsock looked hesitant early, favored his left leg and had two bad passes which led to San Diego layins in the first half.
The Cougars led 31-24 in the first half, but struggled offensively when Brandon Davies picked up his second personal. Without Davies for the next 14 minutes, BYU didn't aggressively attack the post and they missed his rebounding.
Davies first foul came on a questionable call when he appeared to make a spectacular block of a shot on Dennis Kramer. On the play, Davies got on top of the ball as Kramer extended to shoot on the baseline inside the paint but officials say he got him with his body.
Davies scored six in the second half before getting his third foul on a double-foul call away from the ball, jockeying with SD reserve Chris Manresa with 15:27 to play in the game and the Cougars up 46-45.
Rose elected to keep Davies in and after Hartsock scored two buckets, Davies hit a rare 3-pointer to give BYU a 53-47 lead at the 13:56.
When Hartsock made his dramatic pair of free throws to insure BYU's victory, it sealed the fact no No. 3 seed has ever lost a WCC opening tournament game.
In two previous blowout wins over SD, the Cougars outrebounded the smaller Toreros, but fell behind in that category 16-13 in the first half with Davies on the bench. They finished with one more rebound than SD.
The Toreros played aggressive in the backcourt defensively, doubling up on Craig Cusick and ended the first half on a 6-0 run to tie the game at 34.
Impressively in the first 20 minutes, SD outscored BYU 20-10 in the paint, 9-0 off turnovers, 7-2 on second-chances and 6-0 on the fast break, BYU's specialty.
The Cougars had a 15-11 record in Mountain West Conference tournament play with one tournament victory and five appearances in the final game.
This tournament already felt the impact of the Utah connection before BYU joined the league this summer and made its first appearance in this tournament.
The media numbers requesting credentials to the WCC postseason tournament at Orleans grew last year by 30 when BYUtv stepped in and provided live coverage of the event, and the media grew from 158 to 188 that March here at the Orleans.
That BYUtv crew of 30 returned in 2012 and WCC spokesman Jeff Tourial issued 254 credentials for this week's affair. He attributes Utah media requests for more than 40 additional credentials in 2012.