Our guys have learned a lot over the year. I don’t know if we could've have won this game four or five weeks ago. —BYU coach Dave Rose
SAN DIEGO — Having squandered a 16-point first-half lead, BYU found itself trailing by three points to San Diego midway through the second half.
But the Cougars didn’t panic.
Instead, BYU stayed positive and aggressive, and managed to grind out a 78-70 victory over the Toreros Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 3,889 at Jenny Craig Pavilion.
“Our guys have learned a lot over the year,” said coach Dave Rose. “I don’t know if we could've have won this game four or five weeks ago.”
Guard Kyle Collinsworth knocked down a crucial 3-pointer with 1:28 remaining and, from there, the Cougars closed the door on San Diego in the regular-season finale.
“It’s awesome,” guard Tyler Haws said after scoring a game-high 25 points. “It feels like this team has come a long way. We’ve been in situations like that before and it’s gone the other way or we’ve had trouble just fighting to figure it out down the stretch. But guys made big plays. We got stops and big rebounds. I’m just proud of my guys.”
Said forward Nate Austin, who finished with nine points and 10 rebounds: “In the end, I think we wanted it a little bit more than they did.”
With the win, BYU (21-10, 13-5) clinched the No. 2 seed for next week’s West Coast Conference tournament at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
The Cougars will play in the tournament quarterfinals Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s first-round game between the No. 7 seed and the No. 10 seed.
By beating the Toreros (16-15, 7-11), BYU also kept its NCAA tournament at-large hopes alive.
But it wasn’t without some anxious moments.
The Cougars blistered the nets to start the game, hitting 10 of their first 14 attempts from the floor, including three straight 3-pointers, to take an early 25-13 advantage. After a layup by Matt Carlino, BYU enjoyed its biggest lead, 35-19, with five minutes left in the first half.
But San Diego answered with a 10-0 run to stay in the game. The Cougars shot 65 percent over the first 20 minutes and led 41-33 at halftime.
In the second half, the Toreros were heating up just when the Cougars were cooling down.
San Diego drilled seven 3-pointers in the second half, including five by guard Christopher Anderson, who entered Saturday’s contest making 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc.
Inside of 10 minutes remaining, Anderson sank back-to-back 3-pointers that gave the Toreros a 56-54 advantage.
“We know he’s capable of doing that and he has a game like that every once in a while,” Haws said of Anderson. “It seems like lots of guys have their game like that against us. But he’s a great player and when he can do that, he makes his team a lot better.”
Anderson tied his career high with 22 points, including 6 of 9 from 3-point territory. USD guard Johnny Dee was 4 of 12 and had 12 points.
Meanwhile, BYU missed nine of its first 11 shots from the field in the second half and shot just 38 percent over the final 20 minutes.
Moments after Anderson put San Diego ahead, Austin scored on a putback that gave the Cougars a lead they would not relinquish. Earlier, Austin made two free throws as part of a five-point play following a 3-pointer by Carlino.
“Our guys,” Rose said, “responded to a lot of big runs by them.”
Collinsworth’s big 3-pointer gave the Cougars some breathing room, 70-65, heading into the final minute. Collinsworth scored 10 points and had five rebounds.
“They’re a great team,” Haws said of San Diego. “We had a few letdowns and our energy was kind of low. They had a lot of momentum. I’m proud of the way our guys competed and stayed in it. Even though they went up by four or something, we knew we were going to make our run and come back and get that lead.”
“We knew it would be a tough game,” Austin said. “We got up early and we knew they’d fight back. They’re a good team. It came down to the end and the ball bounced our way. We came up with some big shots and free throws.”
The victory was one the Cougars are hoping will prepare them for what’s coming next week in Las Vegas.
“It was kind of an ugly win,” Haws said. “But anytime you can get a W, it feels really good, especially on the road.”