PROVO — You have to hand it to Elijah Bryant. He really does have the “it” factor.
It may not be enough to help BYU deliver another win at Gonzaga Saturday night, but Bryant’s brilliance was in full bloom in his last game, a 76-69 loss to Loyola Marymount on Thursday.
In the stinky-pie loss to lowly and 10-point underdog LMU — another inexplicable WCC lower-tier flop by the Cougars — Bryant simply elevated, found his role and delivered his game through some pretty dire circumstances.
Bryant had every excuse to have a bad game. You could say he had a great case to just sit out most of this game with a towel on his head on the bench or in the locker room.
But shirk he did not.
Late in the first half, he scored on a driving layup only to have 7-foot-3, 250-pound Mattias Markusson throw down a meat hook of an arm in a scraping motion toward Bryant’s head as he finished the bucket, his momentum taking him toward the baseline and out of bounds.
Markusson’s motion, as nasty as any Viking in the History Channel series ever used with an axe in hand, caught Bryant on the top of his noggin. The force of the blow, delivered from behind, drove Bryant’s head backward, his Adam’s apple immediately exposed. His neck and its relation to his head took on a contorted position, an inverse arch, at an unnatural angle.
Meanwhile, three officials, one of which was just feet away, looked on in a rubberneck kind of amazement. No foul was called.
Bryant immediately went to the floor, writhing in pain. It looked as if the shock of the hit left him loopy as a cage fighter. When he finally got off the floor, he looked wobbly and his eyes had a thousand-yard stare. He didn't return for the final six minutes of the half.
It was an unfortunate play by Markussson, who I don’t believe had planned it to have that impact. He is a shot blocker, trained to attack the ball in the hands of shooters, to get there, to use his size, to intimidate and disrupt. He just got there too late to prevent one of Bryant’s patented drives. Later in the game after earning a flagrant elbow foul, he apologized to Dalton Nixon. He’s a good guy.
But it was the rest of the game that caught the eye.
In the second half, with BYU’s other guards struggling to guard, failing miserably to shoot outside, looking a little timid and hesitant, Bryant came in and began doing what he always does — he made plays.
Bryant drove. He finished. He popped in some bombs. He scored and rebounded. The WCC's second-leading scorer just rose up. But it was not good enough for a win. The Cougars were that shaky, that win-impaired. It was as if they were due for one of these head-scratchers and fate had called their number.
Consider how this affected BYU’s shooters not named Bryant:
From distance, as a team, the Cougars shot 5 of 24; Bryant was 3 of 7.
From long range, Jahshire Hardnett was 0 for 2; Zac Seljaas 1 for 4; TJ Haws 1-7; Payton Dastrup 0-2; McKay Cannon 0-2; and Yoeli Childs 0-1.
Bryant, a focus of the offense, made more treys than the rest of the team combined. And he was almost decapitated.
There’s something wrong with this picture.
As bad as his supporting cast was in Los Angeles, filled with turnovers and poor decisions, Bryant was that good.
And he had an excuse to fail.
In this very stupid loss by the Cougars, Bryant scored 24 points, was 8 of 14 from the field, had five assists, a career-best three blocked shots, and one steal in 34 minutes. The six minutes he did not play he was under concussion protocol.
Bryant has hit multiple bombs in 24 straight games, the third-longest streak of consecutive games with a trey in single-season school history. His 24 points was his 10th game of 20-plus this season.
In my book, this makes Bryant a solid star.
As Pacific coach Damon Stoudamire said a week ago, Bryant may be one of the most underrated players in college basketball.
He just showed it Thursday night despite BYU’s colossal failure.
Too bad Bryant couldn’t have played six more minutes.