By Randall Champion
After its victory over Utah on Monday, Jan. 29, the men”s basketball team sent a ripple of respect throughout the Mountain West Conference.
Saturday, Feb. 3, that ripple turned into a wave as the Cougars (16-6, 5-2) defeated a tough New Mexico team 65-49 and found themselves all alone in second place in the conference standings.
The victory also helped restore the Marriott Center”s reputation as one of the conferences most difficult places to play as BYU extended its home-unbeaten streak to 18 games.
As expected, the game was physical and spirited from the start. Thanks in large part to Mekeli Wesley”s 16 first-half points, including three for four from the three-point arc, BYU took a 36-23 lead into the half.
The Lobos (13-6, 3-30), however, were not out of it quite yet. New Mexico put together an 11-2 run early in the second half to cut the Cougar lead to just six at 40-34.
As BYU took a time-out, memories of BYU vs. Wyoming crept into the minds of the fans.
But sparked by the typically energetic crowd, the Cougars blew the game open with a 12-2 run of their own and extended their lead to 16 with 10 minutes to play.
Thanks to 13 second-half Lobo fouls, BYU iced the game from the free throw line, hitting 26 of 33 attempts.
The victory wrapped up a long, successful week for the Cougars. After the game, Coach Steve Cleveland expressed his satisfaction in his team”s performance.
“Considering the week we had, I thought it was a pretty gutsy performance by these young men,” Cleveland said. “I was really pleased overall.”
New Mexico coach Fran Fraschilla also gave his praise to the Cougars” improved toughness. “BYU is an excellent defensive team at home,” Fraschilla said. “They”ve got an outstanding veteran team.”
The last time the Cougars walked off the Marriott Center floor defeated was last Feb. 17, and the team at the other end of the court was New Mexico. The Cougars had no intention of letting the Lobos end what they had started.
Wesley led all scorers with 21 points, while Terrell Lyday had another impressive outing and finished with 19 for BYU. Lyday hit 10 of 12 from the free throw line, missing his final two with five seconds remaining.
Nathan Cooper was strong inside for the Cougars, grabbing eight rebounds as well as playing solid defense. He commented on how important it was for BYU to remain strong on their home court.
“One of our main goals this season was not to lose at home,” Cooper said. “This league will be won on the road, but we need to win at home in order to have a chance.”
The Cougars will need to learn quickly how to win away from Provo, as five of their remaining seven conference games are on the road. But most are happy with where this team stands at the midway point of the season.
“We know five of our last seven are on the road,” Cleveland said. “We”re aware of that. But I”m really pleased with where this team is at.”
The weary Cougars will get a week to rest before their rematch with UNLV on Saturday, Feb. 10. But thanks to the past week, the rest will be much more enjoyable.