The Cougars handled rival Utah State from start to finish in a 95-80 victory Wednesday night, extending their current winning streak over the Aggies to seven straight games.
The game featured the highly-anticipated return of BYU guard Nick Emery, appearing for the first time in 630 days following months of off-the-court frustrations and personal reasons.
Emery, who was welcomed by a strong ovation from Marriott Center fans, kickstarted his playing time this season by drilling a three-point shot just seconds after checking in. The high-motored junior would add a steal and assist before his first minute was complete.
“Nick is a gamer, he came in and knocked down some big shots for us tonight,” BYU guard and Emery’s Lone Peak teammate TJ Haws said. “It’s been a long ride for him, and I’m extremely proud after everything he’s gone through to bounce back like he has. It’s a confidence boost for all of us, and he’s really going to help this team.”
Emery’s return sparked an immediate turnaround in BYU’s three-point shooting, with the junior shooting 3-4 from deep with 11 points. The Cougars shot 45.8 percent from behind the arc against Utah State compared to a mediocre 28 percent through the season’s first nine games.
“I thought Nick was probably way better than I thought he would be,” BYU head coach Dave Rose said, “not that I didn’t think he was capable of it, I just know everything from day one to now that he’s been through and how emotional this was for him.”
Forward Yoeli Childs led the Cougars with 31 points and seven rebounds, his second consecutive 30-point performance. Haws scored 20 points with seven assists and freshman guard Connor Harding added 14 off the bench.
“We had a different feel to the team. We played with passion, and I think that showed tonight,” Harding said. “We came out with a lot of energy and were ready to go.”
The victory snaps a three-game losing skid for the Cougars, just the second such occurrence in Rose’s tenure at the helm. BYU’s captains went as far to organize a rare players-only meeting earlier this week to address their struggles and regain focus.
“This was a tough run for this group,” Rose said. “The captains got the guys together, and I knew there would be a real outward show of determination. And we took on a team that was playing as well as they have, and our guys were ready from the start.”
The Cougar defense was solid, recording 11 steals, four blocks and limiting the Aggies to a 17.6 percent mark from three. Senior guard McKay Cannon earned his first start in an attempt to shut down Utah State’s leading scorer Sam Merrill, a move that paid off as the Cougars held Merrill to just four points in the first half.
The home crowd of more than 11,000 fans, according to the stat sheet, became an integral part of the game to energize the Cougars.
“It’s always fun to have a big student section,” Haws said. “When you make big shots and get big stops it’s huge to have a crowd that gets involved and helps bring energy to the team. I thought they did a great job tonight.”
The Cougars will look to sustain that energy as they face the Utah Utes this Saturday at 12 p.m. at Vivint Smarthome Arena in Salt Lake City in the annual Beehive Classic.