BYU basketball hangs on after another second-half lead slips away

It looked like this game was all but over after a Jaxson Robinson corner 3 put BYU ahead 58-41 with 9:11 left in the second half. BYU was on its way to another comfortable home win until Arthur Kaluma and Kansas State mounted a furious comeback in the final minutes of the game.

Kaluma scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half to lead the Wildcats on a 14-2 run to cut the deficit down to two at 66-64. Missed free throws, quick shots and BYU’s volatile style of play were key contributors to Kansas State’s late surge.

With BYU in danger of relinquishing another double-digit second-half lead, Robinson hit this momentum-halting shot.

“It was just a stagger screen, I came off and was just aggressive looking for my shot,” said Robinson. “I just let it go and it went in.”

The Wildcats answered with a spectacular Kaluma drive — reminiscent of Doctor J in his heyday — to cut the Cougars’ lead back to three. Spencer Johnson closed out the Wildcats in the final seconds on a Steve Nash-esque baseline drive from one side to the other and then turned back around for an easy layup. Robinson and Johnson each finished with 12 points to guide them past the Wildcats.

Balance

There was not one player who stood out for BYU on Saturday, it was the balance and impact of everyone who played that was the story. Five BYU players scored in double figures with Aly Khalifa adding in eight points and six assists. The ball movement and the typical flow of the offense returned to normal operating procedure with BYU close to full strength. A huge return to the starting lineup was Khalifa, who missed the last three games due to an illness.

“I’ve been asleep and throwing up for two weeks,” said Khalifa. “It’s been good to be back competing with guys… I’m very happy with the win tonight.”

Trevin Knell also rejoined the starters and Robinson went back to being the Cougars’ sixth man.

Coming off one of their worst performances of the year against Oklahoma on Tuesday, the Cougars needed a spark and the rotation shakeup was exactly what BYU needed. Khalifa opened the game with an assist to a cutting Noah Waterman. Then Knell scored the next five points working off of Khalifa to get the Cougars’ offense into a rhythm early. Robinson and Fousseyni Traore both came off the bench and found their rhythm as well. Traore finished the game with a team-high 14 points and eight rebounds.

Kansas State also started strong with Dai Dai Ames and Tylor Perry knocking down multiple 3-point shots. BYU forced nine turnovers in the first half while only turning it over three times themselves. The Cougars outscored the Wildcats 6-0 in points off of turnovers in the first half opening up a 36-27 halftime lead. Part of the Cougars’ defensive effort was the play of Trey Stewart, who played his first minutes since BYU’s Big 12 opener against Cincinnati. He finished the game with four points, two steals and was plus-eight in nine minutes of action.

“I was really proud of Trey,” said Pope. “His minutes were really really important tonight. He played a huge role in this win. I’m really proud of him and happy for him. It’s awesome to watch guys grow.”

The Cougars needed Stewart and others to step up because Dallin Hall had his first quiet game in a while. Hall only scored one point and recorded three assists and looked hampered throughout the game from an apparent leg injury.

Despite Hall’s quiet night, BYU had a double-digit lead for most of the second half until Kansas State went on their run.

Big Picture

The Cougars’ win against the Wildcats was the first game since early in conference play where BYU was whole. How Pope decides to deploy Khalifa and Traore will be key to how to his team finishes the season.

The way the Cougars play depends on which center is on the floor. When Traore plays, BYU plays through the post and tries to take advantage of mismatches in the paint.

With Khalifa, BYU elects to play five out with Khalifa roaming around the 3-point line, always trying to set up shooters and cutters for easy looks. The offense operates differently depending on which big man is on the floor. That one-two punch will be difficult for opponents to prepare for. However, finding the balance between the two will be a learning process for the team without a lot of runway to experiment. If BYU can integrate both Traore and Khalifa quickly, this has a chance to close conference play on a high note.

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