Wednesday, October 21, 2020

TJ Haws: Establishing a legacy of excellence with BYU basketball

TJ Haws dribbles down the court, desperately looking to create a play as the clock ticks to 17 seconds. He dishes it off to teammate Connor Harding. Harding then passes the ball to Jake Toolson, who takes no time in passing the ball back to point guard Haws.

Fourteen seconds.

Haws faces his defender, then breaks left. He rounds the top of the arc. Twelve seconds. He throws the ball to the rim off one foot as time seems to freeze. Out of nowhere, Yoeli Childs reaches the top of the rim for the alley-oop dunk. Eleven seconds. San Diego pushes down the court and misses a potential game-winning three-pointer. BYU wins.

Haws often goes unnoticed when compared to senior forward Childs or senior guard Toolson. But without Haws, BYU would have a big hole in its lineup since Haws is the team’s third best scorer and primary assist leader.

While Childs and Toolson lead the team in points, BYU can attribute some of its biggest wins to Haws. He may not be large in stature, but he can shoot. In the 2019-20 season, Haws averaged 14.0 points and 5.8 assists per game, shooting 45.9% from the field.

Toolson only had compliments for Haws, who he’s known his entire college career.

“He’s very intelligent and very smart, especially the way he thinks (about) the game,” Toolson said. “That goes for off the court, as well. He’s really smart. He works really hard. He’s always trying to find a way to get a step ahead of everyone else. He might not have the physical advantage, but he’s always one step ahead of his opponent.”

Earlier in the season, BYU played quad-one opponent University of Houston. The game was a battle all night, with Houston claiming the biggest lead of the game of 13 points in the first half. But with one minute and 25 seconds to go in regulation, BYU fouled Houston’s Caleb Mills, who made two free-throws to give Houston a one-point lead. The next minute was full of unsuccessful scoring attempts, until a Houston player turned the ball over with five seconds left on the clock.

There was only one chance for a shot, and Haws was going to take it. Harding threw the ball in-bounds to Haws, who drove down the court, dodging Houston defenders left and right. He pulled up and took the shot, the ball bounced in the hoop as the buzzer sounded. The bench cleared as they paraded around Haws, who was the reason BYU topped No. 22 Houston 72-71 earlier this season.

But Houston wasn’t the last time Haws would save the Cougars from a loss. On Feb. 1, BYU welcomed West Coast Conference rival Saint Mary’s to the Marriott Center. This would be the second time BYU faced the Gaels this season. The first matchup resulted in an 87-84 overtime loss in California, with Haws scoring a career-high 29 points. This time, the Cougars sought revenge and attempted to dethrone the Gaels from second place in conference standings.

The game was similar to Houston, except the Cougars played the Gaels even closer than they played Houston. BYU shot above season average the entire game, but the Gaels answered each shot with one of their own. Gaels forward Malik Fitts shot a season-high 29 points versus BYU, making four for six from behind the arc and 11 for 15 from the field.

But, BYU held its own against Saint Mary’s, bringing the game within one point after senior Zac Seljaas made two free throws with 49 seconds left, the score 79-78 in Saint Mary’s favor. Both teams went scoreless until BYU head coach Mark Pope called a timeout with 16 seconds on the clock.

The Cougars had their chance for one last possession out of the timeout. Haws had the ball behind the arc, Toolson screened then popped out and Childs screened then rolled down to the paint. The ball was supposed to go to one of the two, but Haws saw a clear shot and took it. With nine seconds left, Haws sunk his third three-pointer of the night, the deciding shot in the 81-79 win over Saint Mary’s.

TJ Haws sinks game-winning three to help BYU beat conference rival Saint Mary’s. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Pope was happy that the ball ended up in the hands of a veteran player like Haws.

“When he pulled up for three, I was a little surprised, but I’m sure grateful he did it,” Pope said. “Players are way smarter than coaches.”

Haws is well-known for his three-point shooting, and his efficiency can’t be overstated. If not for the two game-winning shots over top-tier teams, BYU would likely not have been in the NCAA tournament conversation. The Cougars needed to prove that they could beat top-teams, and thanks to Haws, BYU was a “lock” for March Madness. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had BYU as a No. 6 seed playing No. 11 Indiana in Albany, New York, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

But Haws is more than just a basketball player: he’s now a father. The night that Haws hit his game-winning three versus Saint Mary’s, he left for the hospital immediately after interviews to be there for the birth of his first child, a baby boy named Tyson. Haws said that day was full of emotions, beginning with his wife going to the hospital to sinking the game-winning shot. But he also said it was one of the best days of his life.

In his postgame interview, Haws reminisced about what went through his head after he sunk the game-winning three.

“To be honest, my son went through my mind,” Haws said. “I’ve been thinking about this whole experience all day and right after I hit that shot, I was like, ‘That’s for you, man.’”

Being a student-athlete may seem like much to handle, and it is, according to Haws. As a basketball player, he has to figure out how to meet the demands of school, sports and family life.

He said his secret to success on-and-off the court is to compartmentalize.

“You just have to be present wherever you’re at. When you’re here on the court, your whole mind, focus and everything are here on the court. When you’re home, it’s being with the family and enjoying and spending time with them. When it’s school, you gotta buckle down and study,” Haws said.

Many of Haws’ teammates, including Childs and Toolson, have complimented his ability to not let outside problems affect his play in the gym.

Haws’ ability to focus and compete showed on Feb. 15 when BYU scraped by conference opponent San Diego in California. The Cougars began the game with an 88.7% chance to win, according to ESPN’s matchup predictor. But during the game itself, the lead of either team didn’t extend beyond seven points.

In the final seconds of regulation, Haws assisted Childs to an alley-oop dunk that gave BYU the one-point advantage. San Diego couldn’t respond, losing to BYU 72-71. Haws finished with team-high points on the night, recording 17 points and 10 assists, the second double-double of his career. Combined with Houston and Saint Mary’s, Haws also had a big hand in BYU’s win over San Diego, a win that was essential for the Cougars’ NCAA tournament dreams.

But when asked about his big role on the team, Haws only gave the credit to his teammates for making his performance possible. Haws said his only goal is to help his team win games, and if he can do that, everything else falls into place.

TJ Haws leaves the floor after big 81-79 win over Saint Mary’s on Feb. 1. (Preston Crawley)

Haws ended his BYU career with a nod toward his father Marty Haws, a former BYU basketball player, who has been his biggest inspiration on and off the court.

“He’s been there with me through all of this ever since I was a kid,” Haws said. “He knows my game so well and he’s been my mentor. We talk every single day, we talk through things dealing both on and off the court. He’s such a good guy and I really owe it all to him, where I’m at and everything I have and especially the person I’ve become.”

Haws finished his career ranked as BYU’s No. 2 career assists leader with 603, also breaking his career-high assists in a game with 14 on Jan. 11 against Portland. Haws is also No. 3 all-time at BYU for three-point field goals made with 242 over his BYU career. And to top it off, Haws has started and played in 133-straight games over his career, ranking No. 1 at BYU for consecutive games started. If anyone was reliable from year to year, it was Haws.

The Cougars finished ranked No. 18 in the country after their historic season was abruptly cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. March Madness was scheduled to begin on Mar. 19 with the first round of games, with BYU making its first debut since 2015, while also claiming its highest seed since 2011. Despite the early end to the season, BYU made every game count and Haws’ impact on the program will be felt for years to come.

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