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LAS VEGAS — If Monday night was the last BYU men’s basketball game of the West Coast Conference era, the Cougars ended the same way they have all season against Saint Mary’s : with an early punch, a late flurry and finally a gut-punch at the Orleans arena.
Alex Ducas had 22 points and seven rebounds, and rookie Aidan Mahaney scored 18 points as No. 16 Saint Mary’s took a big lead to hold the Cougars 76-69 in the WCC Tournament semifinals.
Spencer Johnson had 13 points and three rebounds, and Richie Saunders added 11 points off the bench for BYU (19-15), which trailed 26 in the second half.
Leading point guard Rudi Williams had 10 points, four assists and three rebounds for the Cougars, and Dallin Hall, Fousseyni Traore and Gideon George had 9 points each before a late rally fell awfully short against the No. No. 8 in the last NET for the third time by a total of 14 points – including a late winner from Mahaney in Provo.
A young BYU team that has only played two seniors and brought one of them off the bench since Game 10 of the season has tasted success. But consistency eluded them, especially late, much like it did Monday night in front of a noisy, loaded 9,500-seat arena.
“We have to keep growing,” BYU coach Mark Pope said of all the close quarters losses. “We have a very young core who are really special and have dipped their toe into the cost of winning. We can’t really get there on call right now, but we felt it and we saw it, us The one thing that’s been really striking about our bands over the years is that the guys are getting so much better.
“What Rudi has done in one season… to what he’s become right now is a tenured, savvy, direct playmaker who has always made winning plays for us over the last straight line,” added Pope. “And Gideon’s growth over the past three years is astounding as an accomplished human being and community leader – someone who has served our community and his country. He is the heart and soul of this team. These guys knew the load they had to carry this year, and they didn’t run away. They’ve been great mentors to the young guys, and the young guys have grown tremendously. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think the guys are super excited about it.”
The Cougars missed eight of their first 10 shot attempts, and Ducas made them pay with a 3-pointer to give Saint Mary’s a 19-8 advantage after an 11-1 run midway through the first half. BYU found no momentum on offense, then punctuated it with the reliable ruthlessness of a Gaels side that drained 29 seconds from the shot clock before converting 50% of the field en route to a 37-20 lead at halftime.
Saint Mary’s (26-6) didn’t score a field goal for more than three minutes of a five-minute run to end the half, and scored just two field goals – including one Mahaney’s triple with 11 seconds left – during a 13-2 run on the final 5:52 of the half.
The No. 5 ranked scoring defense in college basketball, the Gaels were also ruthlessly efficient and outshot BYU 20-13, and scored 10 points on five offensive rebounds in the first half while Mahaney finished with a 12 point top before breaking it.
BYU briefly reduced its deficit with a 10-0 run, propelled by technical fouls given to Mahaney and Ducas (as well as one by Hall) before Atiki Ally Atiki’s dunk took the Cougars 56-40 with 12:12 to go.
Then BYU addressed the press.
George forced a turnover and converted at the other end to cap a 13-3 run that lifted the Cougars in seven, 67-60, with 3:30 to go. The Gaels had no downtime after BYU scored on four straight possessions, and Johnson drew Mahaney’s fourth foul to set up a reverse faceoff by Saunders, who seems to seriously like playing in Las Vegas, to reduce the deficit to 5.
“We gave them hope and they delivered,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “It can be difficult to play against (the press), but we will have another chance tomorrow.”
George added: “I’ll give the coaching staff credit for that. We’ve been prepping the press all year, and Richie, Spencer, Dallin, myself, everyone just bought the press. I’m giving credit to (the coaches) for that.”
But Mahaney never left the floor and hit 3 of 4 free throws in the stretch to help seal the win.
“I’m glad I got to do the ones that helped us get the win,” said Mahaney, an All-WCC winner as a rookie who shot 6 of 13 from the field and 4 of 6 from the free throw double. . “I think it was just calm for 40 minutes; we preach it and I try to do it the best I can even though tonight I wasn’t perfect.
“I definitely have confidence in myself and I’m happy that the coaches have confidence in me to play in this situation.”