LAS VEGAS – This time of year in college basketball, the difference between frowns and smiles often comes down to only one or two plays.
To figure out the outcomes of postseason basketball, a quick glance at the faces of the participants tells the entire story. For BYU, it was all joy and jubilation after the third-seeded Cougars narrowly escaped with an 85-79 win over No. 6 seed gutty San Diego in the quarterfinals of the West Coast Conference tournament on Saturday at the Orleans Arena.
If not for some serious intestinal fortitude of their own, the Cougars could have been the players and coaches with the sourpuss expressions. Instead, they are moving on to Monday’s semifinals against the winner of Saturday’s later game against Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine.
After BYU squandered a 17-point lead in the second half, the game was tied at 71-71 with three minutes remaining. Obviously, all the momentum belonged to the Toreros, whose coach, LaMont Smith, was suspended last week after an alleged incident with a woman on a team road-trip in San Francisco.
On the ensuing possession, BYU center and team captain Luke Worthington got fouled and was awarded two shots. One problem, though, the big man shot 58 percent from the line during the regular season.
Both free throws never even touched the rim and barely rippled the net as they settled into the basket. With the two-point lead, BYU never trailed again and sent home the team it lost to in San Diego two weeks ago.
“As a leader of this group, I said this would be really great if he made both of these,” said coach Dave Rose, breaking into a huge grin during the postgame press conference.
It is probably a tad overdramatic to say BYU would have lost if Worthington had missed the shots, but the two points did help change the feel of the game. Sometimes, there is a fine line between winning and losing.
“Take it as another couple of free throws,” Worthington said of his thoughts as he stepped to the line. “Obviously, in this circumstance these are big free throws so I wanted to make them. I just said to myself, ‘Hey, you’ve done this a million times (and) you do it every day after practice.’ “
Actually, he does at least 50 times every day. For much of the last three weeks, Rose has required all of his post players to make 50 free throws before they can leave the gym.
During this time, Rose said, Worthington has found his groove.
“I told (the media after the game) that I knew you would make them,” said Rose, interrupting with interview with Worthington in the halfway outside of the BYU locker room.
Along with Worthington’s contributions, T.J. Haws and Jahshire Harndett also made big plays in the final three minutes to turn away San Diego. With the lead down to one point, Haws made a layup and then followed with two free throws.
Hardnett also buried both foul shots to stretch the lead to an insurmountable six points in the final 37 seconds. For good measure, Yoeli Childs was perfect on both of his free throws with 17 seconds left in the game.
Haws was filling the void created by the departure of Elijah Bryant, who fouled out with just over two minutes left in the game. Despite foul trouble limiting him to 26 minutes, Bryant led the way with 27 points on an impressive 10 of 13 shooting.
Bryant’s statistical line was enough to amaze Yoeli Childs, who was stunned after looking at the box score for the first time after the game. Bryant was largely responsible for the big lead BYU built in the second half.
“I just love watching him,” said Childs, who had 22 points and eight rebounds. “Sometimes when I’m out there I feel like such a fan, just seeing the things he does. I swear today he was looking like LeBron James attacking the rim and finishing. I’m so impressed and so proud of my guy.”