Cougars close out maddening hoop season

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Three and a half months have passed since the BYU men’s basketball team stepped onto the floor for its first game of the 2013–2014 regular season. Just like any team with a “championship-or-bust” mentality, the Cougars had dreams of winning a conference championship then storming into March with an invite to the “Big Dance.” What befell them was madness.

The Cougars wielded power on the offensive end to start the season, putting up 80-plus points in each of their first six games —

Tyler Haws is blocked by a Santa Clara defender as he dives towards the ball earlier this season. Photo by Sarah Hill
Tyler Haws is blocked by a Santa Clara defender as he dives towards the ball earlier this season. Photo by Sarah Hill

the only blemish coming in a two-point loss to Iowa State in the Marriott Center in mid-November. Four straight wins to start the year sent a buzz through the locker room, and BYU’s ROC student section expectations skyrocketed with each win.

But then the season took a turn. A 6-2 record through November turned into four straight losses to finish off December, two against WCC foes. Puzzled pain grew with each subsequent loss.

Unlike BYU’s dominance in the MWC — winning or sharing six conference championships from 2000 to 2011 — the battle for the crown in the WCC has seemed almost unobtainable for the Cougars with teams like Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga boasting 11 of the last 13 conference championships. But with Gonzaga losses at Portland and San Diego, the two-horse race became a real race from top to bottom. Any team could win on any given night.

“These league games, everybody scouts you, everybody knows you,” said BYU head coach Dave Rose. “They know your tendencies. They know how you want to play, and they try to make you play a different way.”

That was Rose’s response to their first conference game, a nine-point loss at Loyola Marymount, made even harder to swallow because they nearly beat Oregon, ranked No. 13 at the time, in double overtime the weekend before. Clearly the Cougars’ third year in league play wasn’t going to be a steamroll, giving teams normally considered pretenders a fighter’s chance to be contenders.

The Portland Pilots snapped a 20-game series skid against No. 22 Gonzaga in a nine-point win to hand the Bulldogs their first conference loss, ushering in, at least for this year, a more even playing field in the WCC. After all, wins are hard to come by against dynastic teams. It certainly turned heads on the BYU bench.

“I think that’s part of the process is to try to go through any team and who they’ve played, where they’ve played and the big games they won, because that can get the attention of your players,” Rose said.

But attention doesn’t necessarily translate to wins. Dreams were crushed as the Cougars fell to Portland’s freshman guard Bobby Sharp, who kept stride with Tyler Haws’ career-high 48-point effort with 27 points and eight three-pointers of his own in a triple overtime thriller that left the Cougars stunned.

“I thought we made the plays and had the effort to win the game,” Haws said. “But you’ve got to give Portland credit — they hit some ridiculously tough shots, kept themselves in the game and found a way to win.”

Despite the letdown to the Pilots, BYU tenaciously fought back, riding the maturity and production of Kyle Collinsworth, who took the WCC by storm as a sophomore, averaging double-figures in points and ranking among the best in the league in rebounds, assists and steals — providing consistency in an up-and-down season.

“He’s a great leader and a great player,” junior guard Anson Winder said. “We get behind him every game, and he’s led us to victory a lot of times.”

The Cougars did just that, getting behind one another as they entered their most difficult stretch of the season, one that would determine their place in the league. The difference between second and third place can leave a team on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament.

Needless to say, the Cougars didn’t crumble. After a tough 84-69 loss to Gonzaga in Spokane on Jan. 25, they went on a tare, sweeping the season series for the first time ever against Saint Mary’s and rounding off an almost perfect February with an energetic winning performance Feb. 25 against No. 25 Gonzaga at home in the Marriott Center. Just like they opened up the season with a splash, the Cougars ended it with a bang, going 7-1 in February.

“It was a hard-fought, aggressive game with both teams attacking,” Rose said. “There were times when you could really tell that the players on both teams really wanted to win. Those are fun games to be involved with as a coach. You see guys putting it all out there for the team.”

Second place in the WCC all but assures them a place in the NCAA tourney. The ride is never easy when it comes to competition, and bumps and bruises happen along the way. Teammates get hurt, hearts break and shoulders slump in disappointment. But when it all comes together in the final month, only one word can describe it: madness.

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