How BYU’s defense spurred a crucial WCC victory over defensive-minded Saint Mary’s

Brigham Young Cougars forward Seneca Knight (24) blocks the shot by Saint Mary’s Gaels center Mitchell Saxen (10) in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. BYU won 52-43.
Brigham Young Cougars forward Seneca Knight (24) blocks the shot by Saint Mary’s Gaels center Mitchell Saxen (10) in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. BYU won 52-43. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — As the final seconds slipped off the clock Saturday night at the packed and raucous Marriott Center, Alex Barcello stood near midcourt, clutching the ball.

Barcello looked like he had just crossed a desert after a grueling 40-day journey.

Instead it was a grueling 40-minute game against Saint Mary’s, filled with scoring droughts, physical play and strong defensive performances on both sides.

The scoreboard told the story of the type of game it had been: BYU 52, Saint Mary’s 43 — and it all happened in front of a crowd of 17,544.

“First off, give Saint Mary’s credit,” said Cougar guard Te’Jon Lucas, who scored a team-high 10 points. “It was a rough one. We were throwing blows back to back to each other for 40 minutes.

“They fought hard. … They’re a tough, physical team. I’m just glad we came out with the win.”

BYU improved to 14-3 overall and 2-0 in West Coast Conference play, and it remained all alone in first place in the WCC standings.

The Gaels (12-4, 0-1) entered the night as one of the top defensive teams in the nation, and the Cougars turned in an impressive defensive effort.

“I was really proud of our guys. Defensively, we were near-flawless with a couple of exceptions,” said coach Mark Pope. “(Saint Mary’s is) a great, physical, grind-it-out team.

“Alex Barcello was tremendous on the defensive end tonight in terms of making reads and covering gaps. Te’Jon Lucas is such a huge IQ defensive player. I thought he was fantastic. … When you have a quarterback out there defensively like Te’Jon, it makes your life easy. Then Alex was right there, too. Unbelievable effort defensively from our guys.”

Pope also praised Seneca Knight, who slowed down Saint Mary’s Alex Ducas when he went on a brief scoring spree in the second half.

And 6-foot-9 freshman Atiki Ally Atiki played 15 minutes and went toe-to-toe with the Gaels’ 6-foot-10 center, Matthias Tass, who finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds.

Ally Atiki was a disruptor in the middle, recording three blocked shots.

“In our biggest game so far this season, we knew we had to throw (Ally Atiki) out there and play minutes against a young man in Tass who’s shooting 74% from the field the last five games and averaging 17 points per game,” Pope said. “He’s an unstoppable force in the middle. We weren’t bringing a double team. (Ally Atiki) was terrific.”

Added Pope about Ally Atiki: “Tonight he was flawless on the defensive end. You could feel his length out there. His length challenged Tass. Three blocked shots and probably three altered shots with his length. He was incredible. We had to have him and he delivered.”

Lucas said Fousseyni Traore, who scored nine points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and Caleb Lohner also played key roles defensively.

“Our guys did a great job paying attention to the scouting report. Credit those young guys, Fouss, Caleb, talking out there. It’s a loud building,” Lucas said.

“They let us know when screens were coming and when we switched defensive coverages. We did a good job of turning (Saint Mary’s) over and making things that they didn’t want to do.”

BYU outshot the Gaels 39%-29% overall from the field. The Cougars hit 1 of 13 3-pointers while the Gaels made 4 of 23.

Despite BYU’s inability to knock down 3-pointers, it was able to find other ways to beat Saint Mary’s.

“We showed at the beginning of the year that without our shots falling, we still have a chance to win,” Lucas said. “Some teams live and die by the 3. We find different ways to win out there.”

Offensively, the first half may have set back college basketball about 40 years. Or was it just a strong defensive performance by both teams?

Whatever the case, both teams turned the ball over, and missed shots, in bunches.

BYU didn’t score until more than four minutes into the game and Saint Mary’s jumped out to a 7-0 lead.

At that point, Pope told his team in the huddle, “‘Guys, this is going to be a dogfight, no cap.’ Our guys are masters of absorbing frustration,” he said. “We understand this is not a game of perfection, but a game of perfect effort. We didn’t need to say a lot.”

“We knew what to expect. We knew they wouldn’t give us early catches and that showed in the first couple of the game,” Lucas said. “We couldn’t get the ball and we had a couple of turnovers. Finally, we settled in and were able to run our offense.”

Then, the Gaels went on a scoring drought that lasted about 11 minutes.

The Cougars went on a 13-0 run that started with a 3-pointer by Trevin Knell, followed by a hook shot by Ally Atiki, back-to-back buckets by Barcello and back-to back baskets by Lucas.

With 11:15 left in the first half, BYU was up 9-7. With six minutes left in the first half, the Cougars led 13-7.

At one point in the first half, both teams combined to make 7 of 33 shots from the field.

But BYU scored 15 points over the final five minutes of the half to open up a double-digit lead.

Traore scored a layup between two Saint Mary’s defenders at the buzzer to put BYU up 28-16 at halftime.

In the second half, BYU went almost seven minutes without a field goal. Knell hit a jumper with 11:03 remaining and the Cougars’ next basket came courtesy of Knell on another jumper with 4:11 left.

Emblematic of the night, BYU didn’t allow a Saint Mary’s field goal over the final five minutes of the game.

The Cougars visit No. 4 Gonzaga Thursday.

TIP-INS: While BYU and Saint Mary’s combined for 95 points Saturday, Gonzaga scored 117 points Saturday night against Pepperdine in its first WCC game of the season. … Going into Saturday’s game, the last time the Cougars had allowed 16 or fewer points in a half was in 2016, when they led San Diego at halftime 39-11. … Traore became the first freshman since Yoeli Childs to record 10 or more rebounds in consecutive games.