The beauty of the postseason is that there's a lot on the line, and guys don't quit. You saw that from both teams." —BYU coach Dave Rose
LAS VEGAS — With a little more than three minutes remaining in Saturday's West Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinal game, BYU had just watched its 17-point second-half lead evaporate against San Diego.
With two minutes left, Cougar guard Elijah Bryant, who poured in a game-high 27 points, fouled out.
But, in the end, No. 3 seed BYU made clutch free throws and held on for a dramatic 85-79 victory over the No. 6 Toreros at Orleans Arena.
"It feels awesome. That's why you play sports, to be in games like that," said junior team captain Luke Worthington. "It would have been nice if we would have kept the 17-point lead and been able to coast out of there, but, with them coming back, it makes it all the more exciting to get it."
With the win, the Cougars (23-9) will face No. 2 Saint Mary's at 9:30 MST on Monday night in the WCC semifinals.
The Cougars knocked down eight consecutive free throws over the final three minutes, including two apiece by Worthington, TJ Haws, Jahshire Hardnett and Yoeli Childs in a game that featured 51 fouls called. The free throws by Haws, Hardnett and Childs all came in the final minute.
"It was a dogfight, as everyone saw," Worthington said. "A lot of chippiness, probably more fouls called than I don't know in how long. A ton of fouls. It was fun to win."
BYU coach Dave Rose, whose team lost to the Toreros by 13 in San Diego two weeks early, is glad his team advanced.
"I'm happy for our guys. San Diego played with tremendous heart and grit," said Rose. "I'm proud of our guys for the way we hung in there and finished it off after a tough run against us. We guarded consistently all night. We were really aggressive. We got ourselves in a little bit of foul trouble. But I'm proud of the way our bench came in and made plays."
Yes, the Cougars squandered a 17-point lead. BYU was up 60-43 with 11:50 remaining in the game after a 17-3 Cougar run that included Bryant knocking down three 3-pointers. BYU made 3 of 11 3-pointers on the night.
What were the Cougars thinking as their big lead disappeared?
"Maybe I'm crazy, but I didn't really see it that way. I saw them make a couple of runs, Worthington said. "Granted, it's 17 points and the fans probably look at it and say, 'Oh my gosh, we lost all 17 points.' But the reality is, they made some runs and a lot of really good plays. We respect that team. We know they're really good. We knew that even towards the end when it got to be a tied game, we just had to execute. It's not different if you're up 17 or down one."
With 3:18 remaining, Olin Carter buried a 3-pointer to tie the game at 71.
After Bryant fouled out, BYU was clinging to a 73-71 lead. Haws made a clutch shot to put the Cougars up 75-72. McKay Cannon broke free for a layup while USD was pressing to make the score 81-76 for BYU.
"When they tied it up, every single guy on our team was thinking about the next play," said Childs, who finished with 22 points and eight rebounds. "We trusted each other, and we got the job done."
San Diego (18-13) was playing without coach Lamont Smith, who was arrested last week and is on administrative leave. Sam Scholl served as the acting head coach.
Isaiah Pineiro scored a game-high 21 for USD while Carter had 20, Cameron Neubauer chipped in 13 and Isaiah Wright added 12.
The Toreros were fired up from the start and jumped out to an eight-point lead after hitting four 3-pointers. The Cougars went on a 9-0 run to take their first lead of the game, 19-18.
BYU led at halftime, 39-35.
Bryant took over in stretches of the game and ended up hitting 10 of 13 shots from the field and 3 of 4 from 3-point range.
"It's crazy," Childs said of Bryants stat line. "He was a beast out there. I just love watching him. I turn into a fan just seeing the things he does. I swear, he looked like LeBron James, attacking the rim, finishing. I was so impressed and so proud of this guy."
The Cougars survived and have a couple of days to prepare for their next postseason test.
"The beauty of the postseason is that there's a lot on the line, and guys don't quit," Rose said. "You saw that from both teams."