BYU finishes regular-season finale on a high note

Just six months ago BYU men’s basketball was picked to finish 13th in Big 12 coaches preseason poll. On Saturday they stamped their regular season resume with an emotional 85-71 win over the Oklahoma State Cowboys to finish the season 22-9 overall and 10-8 in the Big 12. With the win, BYU clinched the fifth seed in the Big 12.

“I love it, this league for us is all about the chase,” said BYU head coach Mark Pope. “I wish they had picked us 14th or 15th. I think these guys … I think it helps our guys focus in towards each other … it works as something to consolidate our group.”

Next up, the Cougars are continuing the chase at the Big 12 Conference Tournament in Kansas City and a high single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament. BYU has exceeded all preseason expectations and prognostications by a country mile.

And the Cougars did it together.

Together

“I’ll say together,” senior guard Spencer Johnson said, talking about the word that best describes this team. “I’ve never been around a team that’s been this together this united, this involved in each other lives and business and all the jokes and just good moments and memories we’ve had together.”

BYU showed its togetherness again against Oklahoma State, assisting on 21 of its 31 field goals and only turned the ball over 10 times. It was another game BYU’s connectivity on offense was too much for their opponent. BYU ends the regular season sixth in the country in assist/turnover ratio at 1.74, fourth in the country in assists per game at 18.7 and 21st in the nation in scoring at 82.1 points per game.

What has made this BYU team so tough to defend against this season is that everyone on the floor can beat you in different ways. The Cowboys got a taste of that on Saturday. Eight BYU players scored over five points and all eight players recorded an assist as well. Fousseyni Traore scored 19 points, Jaxson Robinson scored 17, and Spencer Johnson added in 14 to lead BYU. For comparison, the Cowboys’ only player over double figures was Javon Small, who scored 34 points on 10 of 19 from the field including 5-9 from 3.

Relentless

Another piece to this BYU team is its relentlessness.

“I’d probably say relentless just cause I know there’s been a lot of ups and downs,” said Jaxson Robinson. “How we always come back the next day regardless of what happened the day before, obviously its paid off huge this season.”

In the Cougars’ first meeting against the Cowboys, they shot an abysmal 22.9 percent from behind the arc in their 93-83 loss. BYU has been relentless in shooting the 3 this season averaging 32.2 attempts a game, second in the nation. The Cougars are third in made 3s this season at 11.2 per game. Despite poor shooting nights from 3 this season BYU has not shied away from this approach.

On Saturday, the Cougars were in the midst of another poor shooting night. BYU was only 4 of 19 from 3 in the first half and only held a three-point lead at halftime. As BYU has done all season, it kept firing away and finished the game 12 of 31 from 3. The Cougars’ relentlessness this season makes them dangerous against any team in the country and once they got going Oklahoma State had no chance of stopping them.

The first half

It was a sloppy start in the first half for both teams. Oklahoma State and BYU turned the ball over five times each in the first 10 minutes of the game. Robinson came off the bench and steadied BYU scoring 10 of his 17 points in the first half relentlessly attacking the rim.

“The force that Jaxson Robinson was attacking the rim tonight was … it just is incredible how he’s growing he’s a great player,” said Pope. “He’s making massive strides every single day … it’s just incredible to watch him grow.”

BYU led 28-19 with 4:04 left in the first half but Oklahoma State closed the half on a 10-4 run including this remarkable play from Eric Dailey Jr.

BYU’s starters struggled in the first half and were outscored 18-14 by the bench unit. The Cougars shot 37% from the floor in the first half and needed a spark from one of their starters in the second half.

The shot that changed it all

The first half was one that Johnson would quickly forget. Johnson went into halftime recording zero points, one shot, and four rebounds. In the first minute of the second half, Johnson knocked down a 3 to open the floodgates for himself and his team. Johnson scored eight quick points and dropped a beautiful dime for an Aly Khalifa 3-point shot to help open up a 62-37 lead.

For as little impact Johnson had in the first half, his second half was the polar opposite. In his last half ever in the Marriott Center, he posted his third double-double of his career: 14 points and 10 rebounds (and he threw five assists as well). Johnson was the spark that lit the match for the entire team.

BYU connected on 8 of its 12 three-point attempts in the second half leading to a comfortable victory. Once the Cougars got hot from 3 it was ‘Traore time’ in the post. Traore scored 13 of his 19 points in the second half and there was nothing the Cowboys could do to stop him.

“He’s really hard to stop one on one,” said Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton.

The Cougars put together one of its best offensive halves of the season, scoring 53 points on 18 of 26 shooting. A fitting end to an incredibly fulfilling season for BYU fans.

Final thoughts

Since BYU suffered its worst loss of the season in Stillwater 21 days ago, the tides have changed in Provo. The Cougars were 6-6 in the Big 12 staring at three daunting top-25 matchups. The good news is, BYU closed the season 4-2 with wins against Baylor and Kansas and was inches away from beating Iowa State on the road. The Cougars are playing their best basketball at the most important time of the year.

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