Did you hear that? That was the sound of BYU's tournament prospects slip-sliding away. And while their bubble didn't necessarily pop with Thursday's 74-68 road loss to San Diego, it certainly deflated a considerable amount.
The strangest thing was that the Cougars actually came out of the gate well for once. BYU opened the game with an offensive burst that put them in control early — the ball was moving crisply, shots were falling, and things were looking good. Yet despite the hot start, the Toreros continued to hang around by out-muscling BYU on the glass and creating extra opportunities.
And then, about 10 minutes into the first half, something switched. San Diego took control of the flow of the game. They sped BYU up by employing full-court pressure on defense, forcing the Cougars into several careless turnovers in the backcourt. The shots stopped falling, the pace became more frantic, the Toreros shot tons of uncontested layups on the other end — and BYU never quite recovered.
The Cougars made a nice push late in the second half, cutting the lead to 3 on multiple occasions through Dave Rose's brilliantly strategic deployment of the 1-3-1 halfcourt trap, which wreaked havoc on the Torero's brains. But no matter how many times BYU got close, they somehow managed to shoot themselves in the foot every time.
Tyler Haws, who was one of the nation's most accurate free throw shooters until a few weeks ago, failed to convert the freebie on two and-one layups with the score tight, and Brandon Davies managed to go just 4-for-10 from the charity stripe himself. The harsh reality: If the Cougars' two best players make their free throws, we're probably not talking about deflating bubbles right now.
That's not to say that the loss is all on Haws and Davies. It's not. Both were nothing short of amazing in the second half, each doing his best to will their team back into contention. They did so almost single-handedly, because there wasn't much help coming from anyone else wearing a navy blue uniform.
Matt Carlino, who had been so brilliant in WCC play until Thursday, had his first poor game in over a month. He shot the ball poorly, finishing 4-for-14 from the field and failing to score in the second half, while nearly offsetting his 4 steals and 4 assists with 5 turnovers — the most unfortunate of which came when he and Haws collided on a hand-off with 12 seconds left, dropping the ball out of bounds. While it wasn't a horrendous performance, it certainly wasn't Matt's best, and it will likely provide enough fodder to shake the UCLA transfer's legion of haters from their restless slumber.
And beyond the "Big Three"? Nothing. Brock Zylstra was woefully off-the-mark, turning in an 0-for-7 shooting performance along with two turnovers and one of the weakest fouls ever committed in the history of mankind — which, of course, led to a crucial San Diego and-one layup. Josh Sharp got pushed around in the paint early, and Rose never put him back in the game. Nate Austin held his own a little better on the glass, but didn't add much in the way of offensive firepower. Ditto for Craig Cusick and Anson Winder.
Everyone wants to find someone to point fingers at after a loss — especially a loss that hurts as badly as this one. However, the inconvenient truth is that there's no one individual who can be held responsible. Just like so many of BYU's victories this season have been "team wins" with many contributors, so too was this one a true "team loss." Every single player shares the blame. It's not Haws' fault or Davies' fault or Carlino's fault or Zylstra's fault. It's everyone's fault. Everybody missed shots. Everybody missed defensive assignments. Everybody lost.
Where does this leave BYU's season? Well, the path to a tournament bid is now significantly more difficult. The Cougars simply could not afford to lose a game like this, and they will now likely have to beat both Gonzaga and St. Mary's in the regular season just to re-inflate their bubble. No easy task. And even if they accomplish that feat, BYU will probably still have to beat the Bulldogs or the Gaels again during the WCC tournament to feel comfortable about their tourney chances.
And if all else fails? Fast and pray that the team gets irrationally hot in Las Vegas and wins the auto-bid. We're not quite to that point yet, but Thursday's loss just brought us a few steps closer.
• Tyler Haws was an absolute beast down the stretch, finishing with 27 points on 10-for-17 shooting. He really scratched and clawed to get BYU back in the game. The missed free throws were certainly painful, but the Cougars don't have a chance without Tyler's heroics.
• I don't know where Brandon Davies was for the first half of that game, but he certainly came to play in the second, even going on a personal 8-0 run at one point to cut into the Torero's lead. He finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and could've had more had he not turned in a Dwight Howard-like performance at the stripe.
• Do you want to know where this game was really lost? I mean, other than free throws? Defense. BYU gave up 40 points in the first half alone and, even though things got better after the break, still managed to give up 74 for the game. Much of the problem came from gifting San Diego easy baskets off turnovers, but the Toreros also got into the lane at will for much of the game. That has to be tighter if BYU wants to win games against even average teams going forward.
• Josh Sharp got only 9 minutes in this one, and he didn't play after halftime. I had several people tweet me and ask if he had somehow hurt himself. While an unreported injury is always possible, it seemed more like Rose soured on him early and buried him on the bench. Sharp got beat up and pushed around in the first half, failing to corral a single rebound while the San Diego bigs got offensive board after offensive board. They were just far more physical than him, and Rose felt like he couldn't risk that weakness down low. Sounds like it's time for someone to hit the weights...
• Can we please retire the notion that Nate Austin is a good three-point shooter? The big man has had the green light from deep since he stepped foot on campus, but the numbers just don't bear that out. Though he started his career going 4-for-7 from beyond the arc, Austin has converted just six of his last 29 shots. After Thursday night, he is now 3-for-13 this season — a meager 23 percent. Those aren't the numbers of a man who deserves the green light. (h/t @ben_wagner)
• How about Bronson Kaufusi's free throws? It was like he was angry at the basket. So much force. I consider it a miracle that one of them went in.
• A last word: Twitter shows me that the Matt Carlino boo-birds are already out of their hiding places and are once again beating their chests. Let's all give it a rest. No, Matt did not play his best game. Yes, he played a significant role in the team's loss. But this is still the kid who carried BYU over the last month. This is still the kid who came into Thursday averaging 17 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals in WCC play. This is still the kid who, for a few more days, is the reigning conference player of the week. Bad games happen. Bad losses happen. Let's try to avoid rash scapegoating this time around.