By Randall Champion
Pull those shoes out of the closet and clean off the dust. The Cougars are going dancing.
Four years after finishing a dismal 1-25, BYU is back in the NCAA tournament after holding off New Mexico 69-65 in the Mountain West Conference championship on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
As expected, the Cougar seniors led the way, with Mekeli Wesley missing only one shot from the field en route to a 30 point, eight rebound performance.
In addition, Wesley was selected as the tournament most valuable player as well as to the all-tournament first team.
When Wesley first came to BYU, it was coming off its” worst season in school history. Serving as the keystone of the Cougar program, he took the responsibility on his shoulders to bring the Cougar basketball program back to respectability.
“When I first came to this program, it was coming off a horrible season,” Wesley said. “It”s hard to imagine we would be here in this position. It feels incredible.”
Perhaps it was only fitting then to watch Wesley jump onto the scorers table following the victory and lead BYU in its first championship celebration since 1992.
Wesley was not alone, however, when it came to receiving tournament praise. Terrell Lyday, Wesley”s partner in crime for the past two seasons, scored 11 points and dished out five assists to also be named to the all-tournament team.
Following the victory, coach Steve Cleveland reflected on the immeasurable role that his two leaders filled after he took over the head coaching job four years ago.
“Two significant things happened,” Cleveland said. “I met Mekeli Wesley and we talked about rebuilding the Cougar program. Then I had a chance to recruit a young man from my hometown, Terrell Lyday.
“The impact that these two men have had these last two years have recaptured the magic of the Marriott Center and the BYU basketball program again.”
As had been typical of the majority of the season, Cleveland”s stars stepped up in the biggest game of the season and led their team to the victory.
In a tight game the entire way against the pesky Lobos, the key players found ways to make big plays at the right time.
Trailing by as many as nine, New Mexico fought back to keep the game within five for the majority of the second half. But every Lobo swing seemed to be answered by a key move or three point shot by Wesley, Lyday, or Trent Whiting.
With the Cougars on top 67-65 with five seconds remaining, New Mexico”s Ruben Douglas heaved up a potential go-ahead three-point attempt, which, according to Wesley, seemed to hang in the air forever.
But the ball bounced off the rim, and Whiting snatched down the rebound, the Lobos had no choice but to foul one of BYU”s best foul shooters.
Whiting nailed both free throws, which sealed the Cougars” first NCAA tournament berth since 1995. The final Lobo desperation shot was no good, and BYU celebrated its” first Mountain West Conference championship.
True to form, Cleveland credited his seniors for the amazing run BYU has had, and offered his gratitude for their efforts.
“This is a great tribute to the players,” Cleveland said. “Players win championships. I love the effort tonight. It has certainly been a great experience to win this championship.”
Despite losing all three meetings to the Cougars this season, New Mexico coach Fran Fraschilla had nothing but compliments for Cleveland and his staff for the job they had done.
“Coach Cleveland…has done a magnificent job of building the program over the last four years,” Fraschilla said. “They are a classy program with great people.”
After it”s loss to Utah on Feb. 24, it appeared the Cougars” post-season hopes were fading away. But finding it within itself not to quit, BYU won its final two road games and three tough tournament games to silence the critics.
“It felt like a cloud has been lifted,” Lyday said. “Everything you put forth – preseason, during the season – it”s a feeling only a few people can have. And it”s a great feeling.”
BYU will await the announcement from the NCAA on Sunday as to the seeding it receives in the tournament and who it”s first round opponent will be. But behind Wesley and Lyday, the Cougars feel they can play with anyone.
“We definitely want to win some games,” Wesley said. “We feel confident and want for the momentum from today to carry us through the NCAA”s.”
But regardless of how the Cougars finish the season, the fans are grateful that the magic is finally back.