11:30 PM EST, ESPN2 – Line: BYU -4, Over/Under: 145.5
A week away from the NCAA Tournament and there is still plenty left to sort out with a plethora of Conference Tournaments in full swing, as the Saint Mary’s Gaels meet the No. 15 BYU Cougars in the West Coast Conference Semifinals from Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Of these two sides, Saint Mary’s (24-7, 3rd in West Coast Conference) is the only one to have already logged one outing in this tourney, having outlasted Sixth-Seeded Pepperdine in an 89-84 marathon. This affair required Double-Overtime to decide a victor, as the Gaels secured their passage to the Semifinals on the strength of a stellar showing from Senior Guard, Jordan Ford (21.2 PTS, 48.9% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 26.2 PER), who erupted for a career-high Forty-Two Points on a blistering 17-of-30 shooting from the field (56.7%), while going wire-to-wire for the full fifty minutes of play. Randy Bennett’s side needed every bit of production from the All-WCC First Teamer, who torched the Waves from beyond the arc, knocking down 5-of-12 Three-Pointers, including the backbreaker from the Left Wing with 25.6 left to play. As a team, Saint Mary’s only netted 8-of-27 from downtown (29.6%), but managed make up for it on the defensive end, where they harassed Pepperdine into Seventeen Turnovers, which helped lead to nine more Field Goal Attempts. Juniors, Tommy Khuse (5.6 PTS, 38.5% FG, 31.1% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 3.8 AST, 12.1 PER) and Malik Fitts (16.9 PTS, 48.4% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.4 STL, 24.2 PER), added Eleven Points apiece with the former contributing in other areas with a team-high Eight Rebounds and Five Assists. Though the contests was visibly draining for the victors, it’s a far question just how much they’ll have left in the tank when they face BYU tonight, though they’ll arrive knowing that they certainly have what it takes to run with the nation’s fifteenth-ranked school. After all, they’ve met on two occasions already this year, and when we tell you that they were close affairs, we’re not pulling the proverbial wool over your eyes; the pair of meetings were decided by a scant Five Points, with each side winning on their home court, the first of which was also decided in Overtime. In that particular matchup from McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, California, the Gaels overcame a sloppy effort in which they committed more Turnovers (16) than Assists (14), by outworking the Cougars, besting them on the glass (35-28), getting to the Charity Stripe (20-of-24), and being more proficient from beyond the arc (9-of-28), outscoring them by a combined Fifteen Points in those last two categories. Ford was once again the man of the hour, scoring Twenty-Four Points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%), including 4-of-8 from downtown (50.0%), while collecting Four rebounds, Two Assists, and a Steal. The aforementioned Fitts added Seventeen Points on 6-of-14 shooting (42.9%), with Nine Rebounds, Three Assists, and a pair of Steals. While Bennett’s charges are likely safe in regards towards being selected to the NCAA Tournament, a longer run in the WCC Tournament certainly couldn’t hurt matters, particularly from a psychological standpoint, for many of their number no doubt remember how they were controversially snubbed by the Selection Committee despite going 28-5, before falling to Brigham Young in the West Coast Semifinals. Now in his sixth full campaign at Saint Mary’s Bennett has done a solid job in building the program’s profile, advancing to the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three years, winning a share of the WCC Regular Season Title in 2015-16, and last year’s Conference Tournament outright punching their ticket to the Big Dance. A win tonight will likely set up a rematch of last year’s Final, in which the Gaels bested Regular Season Champion, Gonzaga, in a 60-47 victory which saw the former pull away in the Second Half (33-23) of a defensive struggle. Bennett’s defense was the key, relegating the Bulldogs to a miserable 37.5% shooting from the field, including 2-of-17 from the perimeter (11.8%).
Meanwhile, awaiting them in the Semifinals is BYU (24-7, 13-3 in West Coast Conference), who will be looking to advance to the Finals where they could potentially end a nineteen-year drought without a Conference Tournament Title. Yes, the Cougars are a lock to hear their name on Selection Sunday, but the opportunity to bring a trophy back to Provo is simply to much for them to pass up. Winners of nine straight games, Mark Pope’s charges have nothing short of stellar during that stretch outscoring the opposition by a margin of 15.2 Points per Game, with their last outing coming against a common opponent, Pepperdine, whom they hammered 81-64 in the Regular Season Finale. Trailing 32-35 at Halftime, the visitors went on absolute tear in the Second Half, outscoring the hosts 49-29 over the final twenty minutes keyed by an early 11-3 stretch. Brigham Young shot a healthy 53.1% from the field, including 7-of-14 from beyond the arc (50.0%), all the while assisting on Twenty of their Thirty-Four Field Goals. Make no mistake, this game was all about Yoeli Childs (22.2 PTS, 58.6% FG, 48.8% 3FG, 8.9 REB, 2.1 AST, 35.1 PER), with the Senior Forward exploding for a career-high Thirty-Eight Points on 17-of-27 shooting (63.0%), and Fourteen Rebounds, registering his third consecutive Double-Double. Childs etched his name in the school’s record books, becoming the first player in the history of their program to total 2,000 Points and 1,000 Rebounds. There must be something about playing the Waves, for they’ve been eviscerated by some pretty good players of late, with the Big Man scoring accounting for over half (12) of their first Twenty-Two Points of the Second Period. If you’re wondering how Childs fared in previous meetings with Saint Mary’s, he didn’t feature in their first encounter de to injury, but made quite an impression in the second, dropping Nineteen Points on an efficient 9-of-12 shooting from the floor (75.0%) in just twenty-two minutes of a narrow 81-79 victory at Marriott Center in Provo, Utah. With both sides shooting much better the second time around, the hosts netted a sweltering 57.9% from the field, including 10-of-22 from downtown (45.5%), with Nineteen Assists in comparison to just Six Turnovers. Fellow Senior, T.J. Haws (14.3 PTS, 47.2% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 20.6 PER), scored Twenty-Three Points on 9-of-15 shooting (60.0%), including 3-of-6 from the perimeter (50.0%), along with Five Assists. Haws alongside yet another Senior, Jake Toolson (15.3 PTS, 47.3% FG, 47.1% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 21.7 PER), joined Childs as members of the All-West Coast Conference First Team, with the former pacing the team with 5.8 Assists and the Latter drilling a team-best Eighty-Two Three-Pointers. And speaking of netting treys, not team in the country has been more accurate from long-range than BYU, who have drilled a very healthy 42.4% of their attempts, making a total of 325 (5th Overall). Teams that are dangerous in this regard are generally a trendy pick in the NCAA Tournament, and when you couple that with their experience, then you may want to keep the Cougars in the back of your mind when filling out your bracket. Furthermore, they absolutely handled No. 2 Gonzaga two weeks ago in a 91-78 upset, in which they buried the WCC Champions with the Money Ball, knocking down 11-of-27 from downtown (40.7%), outscoring them by a whopping Eighteen Points. To no surprise, Childs led the way with Twenty-Eight Points, Ten Rebounds, Three Assists, and a pair of Steals, while the duo of Toolson and Haws combined for Thirty-Three Points, Fourteen Assists, and 7-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc (46.7%). In his first season with Cougars, Mark Pope has done well to build upon the foundation laid before him by his predecessor, Dave Rose, and will end a four-year drought without a selection to the NCAA Tournament.