PROVO — No doubt, Saint Mary’s has been a big stumbling block for the BYU basketball program since the Cougars joined the West Coast Conference.
Going into last Thursday’s matchup at the Marriott Center, for example, the Gaels had won six consecutive regular-season games against BYU.
That’s why the Cougars' 71-66 victory over the Gaels in front of a crowd of 11,427 meant so much, especially to those that were involved in many of those losses.
“Amazing. I was saying in the locker room, it’s up there with beating Utah, beating those guys,” said Yoeli Childs, who scored 23 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. “We’ve had a tough run against those dudes and they’re a really tough team to beat. They slow the ball down. They make great decisions and they’re really well-coached. They execute on offense and make it really hard for you on defense. They’re a great team. It feels good to beat a great team.”
“It feels great," said guard TJ Haws, who scored 17 points and dished out seven assists. "This team has put in a lot of work and to have it show like that (Thursday), I’m just really proud of our guys and I thought we came together really well and guarded as a team and took a step forward defensively. That gives us a lot of confidence to beat those guys. And now we’ve just got to take that and keep moving forward.”
BYU (13-9, 5-2) turned in a strong defensive effort, holding Saint Mary’s to 66 points and 44 percent shooting from the floor. The Gaels missed their first 13 3-point attempts and committed 15 turnovers. BYU scored 17 points off those turnovers.
“That was a big factor in the game," said coach BYU coach Dave Rose.
“Our mentality was to not give them easy looks. Saint Mary’s, what they do is they score in the paint, post-ups and 3s. We talked about that the last few days,” Childs said. “That’s what they’re taught; that’s what they do. That’s what they’re good at. And so we just tried to take those things away and make them shoot that mid-range shot that they’re not as used to shooting.”
The Gaels didn’t record their first assist until the second half.
“That’s how they assist the ball, on the drive. They drive that thing in there and then you suck in and they pull that thing out and they make those shots most of the time,” said Rose. “Our game plan was not to come off the shooters.”
Saint Mary’s forward Malik Fitts scored eight of the Gaels' first 10 points as he had his way with Luke Worthington and Childs early on.
“He looked like he was going to score about 50. He’s a handful,” Rose said. “We started to help a little bit more, trying to get him to turn a little bit and when he turned, tried to get hands on balls. That was a big difference in the first half.”
Forward Gavin Baxter helped slow Fitts down and made several big plays on both ends of the court. The freshman played a career-high 27 minutes, scored 10 points, had five rebounds and two blocks.
“Gavin’s just getting better and better right now on the floor. He has a lot of confidence and he’s playing great and I’m really proud of him," Haws said. "That (7-foot, 3-inch) wingspan is super long and he can challenge a lot of shots and we made them feel uncomfortable. A lot of that was Gavin. He did a good job of that.”
BYU led by as many as 12 in the second half but Saint Mary’s cut the deficit to two points, 61-59, with 3:41 remaining after a 10-0 run as guard Jordan Ford continued to heat up. But the Cougars didn’t flinch.
“That was a big turnaround right there. We called timeout and TJ made a big shot,” Rose said. “We got a stop. We got hands on balls, fought.”
“Just get back to doing what we had been doing the whole game,” Childs said of the team’s mindset at that point. “Playing for each other, getting in those gaps and trying to force Ford into places where he wasn’t comfortable. He’s a great player and he can make plays. Great players make runs like that. But we just wanted to get him a spot where he’s not as good.”
Soon BYU got back up by six and Gaels coach Randy Bennett called a timeout.
“Our guys had a really confident look, all of them,” Rose said. “When I sat down to address them, you could tell the guys were determined to make this happen. One of the most satisfying things as a coach is having so many guys making big plays, game-winning plays. That’s a good win for us.”
Rose added that he loved what he saw offensively from his players, noting that his team had only two turnovers.
“Our execution on the offensive end was maybe as good as it’s been. You don’t play many games where you just turn the ball over twice. No turnovers in the second half. Good win for our guys,” he said. “Our purpose was really good tonight. We had open shots that we didn’t just settle for. We knew what we wanted to get in for most of the night. We were pretty good at trying to make sure we got that.”
The Cougars have a bye Saturday, then host No. 4 Gonzaga next Thursday.23 comments on this story
“We’ll watch the league on Saturday and see what happens,” Rose said. “Then we’ll get ready to go back at it on Thursday next week. ... We’ll probably take (Friday) off. Then on Saturday, get them in early, get a lift, get some shots up and then get ready for (practice) Monday.”
What are Childs’ plans for Saturday?
“Get in the gym and practice. Our wives will probably love us that night because we can actually take them out and do something,” he said. “Our wives will be happy but we’ll still be getting work in.”