Seneca Knight shoots against Saint Mary's on Jan. 8. (Decker Westenburg)

BYU men’s hoops battles for 52-43 win over Saint Mary’s

In their most intense defensive battle of the season, BYU men’s basketball recovered from an early disadvantage en route to a gritty 52-43 win over Saint Mary’s, giving the Cougars their fourth straight victory and a 2-0 start to West Coast Conference play.

It takes a great deal to overcome a 1-of-13 shooting night from three, 13 turnovers and missing more than half of your layups, but good things are prone to happen to teams that hustle, and the Cougars were no exception. They don’t call them “Mark Pope’s motley crew” for nothing, after all.

The Gaels opened the night on a 7-0 run, putting on a perimeter defense clinic that completely smothered BYU’s outside shooting game. Calling timeout after six minutes of clueless play, head coach Mark Pope had just one message for his squad.

“It’s gonna be a dogfight, no cap,” Pope recalled of the huddle discussion. Play resumed, and a Trevin Knell 3-pointer got the wheels turning for a nearly 10 minute, 13-0 stretch to give the Cougars a lead they never relinquished.

A typically patient, efficient offensive unit, patience ultimately betrayed Saint Mary’s and allowed an aggressive BYU defense to swipe away loose balls, hop in passing lanes and force turnover after turnover. Shooting 26.9% from the field in the first half didn’t do the Gaels any favors, as the Cougars grinded out each possession to generate offense out of defense.

“We always find ways to win,” guard Te’Jon Lucas said. “We’ve shown that we can still win when shots don’t fall.”

Despite Knell’s three being their only make from behind the arc all night, the Cougars adjusted accordingly to manufacture points any other way they could, receiving scoring contributions from their entire rotation in a true team effort. Lucas’ 10 points made him the only BYU player to crack double digits in scoring, with Knell and Fouss Traore posting nine points each along with a pair of eight spots from Alex Barcello and Seneca Knight.

BYU won a game without a Barcello three? Strange things are afoot in Provo. Perhaps Pope truly is a mad scientist.

Barcello’s defensive effort to pick up reads and cover gaps would end up being just as valuable as a typical scoring performance on any other night for the star senior. Lucas, Gideon George and Spencer Johnson all swiped two steals each, with raw freshman Atiki Ally Atiki swatting three blocks in one of his first tastes of meaningful minutes.

“I was really proud of was our young bigs,” Pope said. “It was a huge improvement over last year against Saint Mary’s.”

The Cougars were out-rebounded and dished out a mere seven total assists, but none of that would matter. Saint Mary’s played forcefully and physically, but BYU was aggressive, scrappy and hustled their way out of trouble. Riding one of the most prolific home-court advantages in college basketball, BYU fed off of — and relied on — a continuous source of energy from 17,000 fans at the Marriott Center, with the rowdy ROC section leading the charge for stoke.

“It’s the most perfect and wonderful atmosphere in college basketball,” Pope said of the Marriott Center.

With a bit of conference momentum under their belt, 14-3 BYU now prepares to seemingly storm Mount Olympus as they travel north for their first clash of the year with No. 4 Gonzaga, the contest that is always circled first upon the season schedule release.

“These are the kinds of games that Alex and I came back for— Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga,” Lucas said.

The Cougars head to Spokane, Washington to face Gonzaga this coming Thursday at 9 p.m. Mountain time.

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