Cougar fans across the nation let out a collective sigh of relief as the words “Ole Miss/BYU” flashed across the screen, signifying that the team had officially made the NCAA tournament’s field of 68. The Cougars and Rebels will meet up in Dayton as part of the tournament’s “First Four” play-in round.
“It was terrible; the tension was pretty high in that room,” Tyler Haws said of watching the live results. “We were confident going into (Sunday), and then when you see all these other teams getting their named called before you, it can be nerve–racking. We’re just really happy that our named got called, and we’re excited to play.”
Dave Rose’s squad celebrated its selection despite the fact that many experts had projected that the Cougars would avoid the opening round. Teams selected for play-in games are usually either champions of minor conferences or those whose resumes weren’t all that convincing to the selection committee.
“I’m just excited,” Kyle Collinsworth said. “I don’t care what seed we are; we’re in. We have an opportunity to make a lot of noise and play in a big tournament.”
The Cougars’ dreams for a spot in the Big Dance were all but dead following a second loss to Pepperdine a little more than a month ago. But wins in eight of their final nine games, highlighted by an upset of then-No. 3 Gonzaga, revitalized their season and their tournament resume.
“It’s a great life lesson that you just never give up — you never give up on yourself; you never give up on the opportunity that’s next for you,” Rose said. “The fact that we were 5-4 halfway through WCC (play), the guys had a lot of opportunities to go different ways. What they chose as a group was to come together and finish this thing as strong as we possibly (could). It’s easy to start pointing fingers and go different directions, but this group just banded together.”
Tuesday won’t be BYU’s first dabble in the opening round. In 2012 BYU overcame a 25-point deficit to beat Iona in the largest comeback win in NCAA tournament history. The team would prefer a little less drama in its second go–around in Dayton.
The Cougars will meet up with 11–seeded Ole Miss, which finished in a four-way tie for third in the SEC with a 20-12 overall record. The Rebels have some stellar wins this season against Oregon, Arkansas and Cincinnati, but a one-point overtime loss at still-undefeated Kentucky may be their most impressive feat. Junior guard Stefan Moody averages a team-high 16.3 points a game while proving to be the Rebels’ go–to guy in crunch time.
BYU guard Skyler Halford is expected to be able to play Tuesday despite suffering a nerve–contusion to his left leg in the final seconds of the WCC Championship game. Gametime status for injured guard Anson Winder is still up in the air, however. The senior has been out with meniscus issues over the past two games and will undergo knee surgery after the season’s end.
Tuesday will be the first-ever meeting of BYU and Ole Miss on the court. Cougar fans will be able to watch the game on TruTV at 7:10 p.m. (MDT).