Spencer Johnson takes a shot against Cleveland State in the Marriott Center. (Melissa Collado)

BYU men’s basketball edges Cleveland State 69-59 in opening night dogfight

Riding Alex Barcello’s 24 points and late-game heroics, BYU men’s basketball pulled out a 69-59 victory over Cleveland State in Tuesday’s season tip-off at the Marriott Center.

It was a tight, intense affair, but Mark Pope’s motley crew put it all together when it mattered most and escaped with the victory despite the paltry deep shooting, excessive turnovers and foul trouble from Caleb Lohner.

The BYU bench reacts to a play against Cleveland State. (Melissa Collado)

“I’m so happy, this was a huge win for us against a terrific team,” Pope said. “Our defensive effort was off the charts down the stretch.”

Neither team could find a groove shooting the ball, with the typically sharp-shooting Cougars making just 26% of their 3-pointers and Cleveland State shooting a dismal 36% collectively.

The efficient, conservative Barcello took just six shots on the night, doing the majority of his damage with 13 points on perfect free-throw shooting.

“I was below 90% from the free-throw line last season, so free throws were a priority for me this offseason,” Barcello said.

Finally attacking late, Barcello made a smooth jumper with a limited shot clock to put the Cougars up by four with just over three minutes to play, then cashed in on another long, contested shot forty seconds later to seemingly bury the Vikings.

“Beforehand, some of my teammates came and told me to make a play,” Barcello said. “I realized I had a mismatch so I just attacked.”

BYU’s bench was a key factor in adding 28 points, led by guard Spencer Johnson pitching in for 13 points at a 66% floor clip with a solid defensive showing.

Spencer Johnson maneuvers around a Cleveland State defender in the Marriott Center. (Melissa Collado)

“We played together,” Johnson said. “We fought through frustration. We hung in there.”

BYU dominated on the glass, with Lohner and Gideon George grabbing nine and seven rebounds each. Forward Fousseyni “Fouss” Traore picked up eight boards and three blocks as well in his collegiate debut.

“He’s gonna become a big-time player,” Pope said of Traore. “He’s got shades of a Yoeli Childs-type athlete.”

Newcomer guards Te’Jon Lucas and Seneca Knight weren’t flashy but combined for seven points and five rebounds, with Lucas adding three assists and showing signs of becoming a prominent playmaker in Pope’s offense.

“We’re not perfect, as we saw tonight,” Barcello said. “As we keep building trust, these guys have our backs and I trust them to make a play. We got guys that are built for this.”

Gideon George dribbles past a defender at the Marriott Center. (Melissa Collado)

The Cougars continue their early tests with San Diego State visiting Provo this Friday and then heading on the road to face Oregon on Nov. 16, giving Pope’s squad opportunities to adjust their attack going forward.

“I’m gonna get fired soon because I want us to be challenged as soon as we can so we can get better as soon as we can,” Pope said. “It’s going to show us how we need to get better.”

San Diego State is an especially intriguing matchup, winning the Mountain West title last season and finishing No. 16 in the country. Last year’s meeting between the Cougars and Aztecs resulted in a 10-point BYU victory despite the late drama of squandering a 17-point advantage, and Barcello and company are eager for a rematch with fans in the stands this time around.

“I don’t know if you call it a rivalry, but there’s some tension with San Diego State,” Barcello said. “It’ll show us what we’re made of, it’s a good test for us.”

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