The game was just a battle of wills. We made a few more plays at the end and our guys made some free throws late. —BYU head coach Dave Rose
PRINCETON, N.J. — It was the kind of early-season battle that will benefit both teams in the long run.
After breezing to a 30-point opening win over Mississippi Valley State on its home court last Saturday, BYU ran into a much tougher test at Princeton, facing a team that went through the Ivy League with a perfect 14-0 mark last year before winning the inaugural Ivy League Tournament and falling to Notre Dame by two points in the NCAA Tournament.
The game was far from an offensive masterpiece, but the Cougars outscored Princeton 9-2 over the final 2:33 to come away with a 65-56 win to improve to 2-0 on the season.
“I feel really similar to how we felt last year at this time after our opener when we beat Princeton,” said BYU coach Dave Rose, whose team beat Princeton 82-73 in Provo a year ago. “You just know it is going to be a good win for you and we’re excited about that. The game was just a battle of wills. We made a few more plays at the end and our guys made some free throws late.”
Elijah Bryant led the Cougars with 22 points, connecting on nine of 10 free throws. Zac Seljaas had 11 points and TJ Haws added 10 for BYU. The Cougars also had eight points and 11 rebounds from Yoeli Childs.
“Early in the year, every season, you get in these close games and you can play them tight and you get beat and the ball is not bouncing your way,” Rose said. “It’s really hard to recover from that. So this is a big win for us, just for our confidence and our guys being able to overcome some tough situations. We had Nick (Emery) and Eric (Mika) with us last year and we thought both of them would be back and we’ve got neither of them.
“So I think our guys did a great job of overcoming some challenges and getting a big win. Eli hit some big free throws for us down the stretch.”
The game was tied at halftime and neither team led by more than three points until a 3-pointer by Seljaas capped an 8-0 run and gave the Cougars a 39-34 lead with 17:09 left in the second half. BYU then went scoreless for just over five minutes and Princeton came back to even the score at 39-39.
The game got crazy in the final seven minutes. First, BYU scored seven points without any time running off the clock as Bryant made a basket and the ensuing free throw, followed by the Princeton bench getting a pair of technical fouls and Bryant adding four free throws to cap a 10-0 run to give the Cougars a 52-43 lead.
Princeton got to within 54-51 when the Tigers made four free throws of their own thanks to a pair of technical foul shots by Devon Cannady and two more free throws by Myles Stephens. The BYU lead was 56-54 when the Cougars went on a 5-0 run behind three free throws from Haws and a basket by Childs to open up a 61-54 lead.
BYU limited Princeton to 37 percent shooting and created 19 turnovers to get the job done on the defensive end. And the Cougars won despite being outrebounded 36-23.
“We practice all year and something we emphasized this offseason was defense, so the fact that we can show that now is helping us a lot,” said Bryant, who added seven rebounds to his game-high 22 points. “I think our team defense really helped with everyone getting into gaps and helping each other out. We played good team defense. Coach always talks about next play no matter what the situation and get the next stop.”
The game was far from a run-and-gun affair, which is fine with Rose, who knows his team will need to find different ways to win games this year.
“We have really made a focus with our team this year to become a better half-court offensive team,” said the BYU coach, whose team returns home to host UT-Arlington on Saturday. “We’re a really good first side team when we come down and race it up and score. But we felt, especially last year, when the possession got to where we really needed to grind one out and score we weren’t nearly as good so we worked on it a lot.”
In a game that saw 17 lead changes and 11 ties, every possession counted. And in the end this was a win the Cougars will feel very good about.