PROVO — It’s no secret BYU’s offense this season runs through Yoeli Childs and Elijah Bryant.
Beyond them? That’s where things get interesting.
Heading into the Cougars’ matchup with Pepperdine on Thursday night — ultimately an 83-63 win for BYU — the team had failed to top 70 points in a West Coast Conference game.
“We’ve been having a real hard time scoring,” said BYU basketball coach Dave Rose, whose team improved to 14-4 and 3-2 in conference play with the victory.
What can the Cougars take from the win over last-place Pepperdine? “I think the key in this game is that we got help from three or four different guys,” the coach added.
There are a few things to learn from the effort.
One: If both Childs and Bryant are efficient offensively, the Cougars will beat most teams in the league and hang with the others, like top-shelf Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga.
Childs and Bryant pushed BYU offensively in the early going when the game was close, as they combined for 26 of BYU’s first 32 points against the Waves. The duo also scored the Cougars’ first 15 points of the second half, when BYU extended a six-point lead at the break to 17 points at 55-38 with 15:41 to play.
Bryant led BYU with 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including five 3-pointers, and Childs had 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 12 rebounds and six assists. It wasn’t until BYU had the game in hand, though, that other players, other than TJ Haws, really got going offensively.
Two: the Cougars’ top remaining shooters beyond the two stars must remain assertive.
BYU’s best option behind the top two is Haws, who earned All-WCC honors as a freshman last year. His shooting percentage has dipped this season (from 42.4 percent to 36.9), though his assist total has risen (from 3.2 to 3.9 per game).
Pepperdine is not the definitive test for BYU’s ability to create scoring from players outside of Childs and Bryant. The Waves rank dead-last in the WCC in team defense, giving up 79.9 points per game.
That said, it was a good offensive night for Haws, McKay Cannon and Zac Seljaas.
For Haws, league play has been a struggle shooting, as he’s hit 13 of 41 shots from the field, though against Pepperdine he made 3 of 8, his best shooting night in WCC play so far.
Haws had to grind it out to finish with 10 points, his first double-digit game of league play.
The sophomore was aggressive offensively, starting with his first shot attempt. After receiving a pass from Cannon at the 3-point line and Payton Dastrup set up the screen, he split two defenders and drove hard to the basket, hitting the layup and drawing a foul.
Later in the first half, Haws showed his strength of finishing at the rim after Bryant made a steal. After taking a pass from Bryant, Haws skillfully moved around the Pepperdine defender to hit a left-handed layup. That gave BYU a 40-32 lead, its largest of the first half, and Haws had six points at halftime.
The second half was more a struggle for Haws, as he hit just 1 of 5 shots in the final 20 minutes. Late in the game, he took a pass from Seljaas and immediately attacked the rim. As he picked up his dribble as he entered the lane, though, Haws didn't have a solid outlet to pass to and was forced to put up an off-balance shot that hit off the side of the rim.
Still, it was an overall positive night for Haws, as he was able to hit 4 of 5 free throws to help him reach double digits.
Cannon, meanwhile, showed assertiveness offensively against Pepperdine in his role as the team’s backup point guard.
Each of his made field goals, all in the second half, showed strong ball movement by the Cougars, who had 19 assists in the game.
On the first, Bryant drove around the 3-point line, then fired a left-handed pass back to Cannon for an open 3-pointer in the corner. Cannon's next bucket came when Childs hit Cannon with a well-placed pass along the baseline for a layup. And Cannon's third shot, again a 3-pointer, came after Seljaas handed off to him and Cannon quickly took advantage of the space between him and his defender.
It was Cannon's first game with multiple 3-point makes since Dec. 9 vs. Weber State, as he made 3 of 5 shots and finished with eight points and an assist.
“In league, it’s all about making adjustments, and I thought we did a good job tonight,” Haws said.
Which leads the third lesson learned from Thursday’s game: bringing a bit more offensive-minded mentality to the court was a good thing against the Waves.
Seljaas started in place of Luke Worthington on Thursday, the first time Seljaas had started since Nov. 21. Seljaas is more of an offensive threat, while Worthington is a stronger defender.
“I think we did it to space the floor a little bit,” Rose said. “Hopefully (Seljaas) can get some confidence and build on that. That would really help our team.”
Against Pepperdine, the plan worked. Seljaas made all three of his field goals, including a 3-pointer, and added a free throw to finish with eight points. He also had four assists, a block and a steal.
On his first basket of the night, Childs drove the lane and sucked in two Pepperdine defenders, then found Seljaas underneath for a layup.
Seljaas also showed the 3-point shooting touch he's remembered for during his freshman season. In the second half, Childs passed back out from the key to Cannon, who dribbled to his right and took a step in on the attack to suck in two defenders who were playing zone defense. Seljaas then slid over into a hole in the zone and, immediately after taking a pass from Cannon, drilled a 3-pointer to put BYU up 64-40.
“Zac stepped up tonight. He made some great passes inside, finished the ball well,” Childs said.
BYU plays four of its next seven games on the road, including at WCC leaders Saint Mary’s on Jan. 25 and Gonzaga on Feb. 3. Getting the offense clicking beyond Childs and Bryant will be vital in these games, so as to avoid another setback like the Cougars had in their 67-66 loss to Pacific.
“I really want us to strong start in those games,” Haws said, emphasizing the Cougars need to stay aggressive offensively. “In league play, if you give a team early confidence, any team can play with any (other) in this league. I’m hoping right from the get-go, we’re ready to go.”