As his countless detractors will certainly tell you, sometimes Matt Carlino taketh away. But when he giveth? Oh boy, doth he give with both hands — and then some.
A clearly energized BYU team used a sterling second half from Carlino and fantastic all-around performances from Tyler Haws and Brandon Davies to outpace the Washington Huskies for a first round NIT win on Tuesday, 90-79. The Cougars will advance to play the winner of Wednesday's game between Tennessee and Mercer in the second round. (The date of the game is not yet scheduled, but it will be played at the Marriott Center, regardless of the opponent.)
But as good as Carlino was down the stretch, we have to start with Haws. The kid is just an unbelievable player, and this was one of those special nights where you could tell early on that his stroke was feeling good — and it showed. Washington had no answer for the recently returned missionary, as Tyler racked up 37 points on 15-for-24 shooting to go with his 6 rebounds and 3 assists.
It was as close to a complete offensive game as I've ever seen Haws (or any non-Jimmer BYU player, really) play, and I'm including his explosion against Virginia Tech earlier this year in that assessment. He did everything and made shots from everywhere. He shredded the Huskies from mid-range and, once they started overplaying his jump shot, he deftly deployed a variety of head fakes to open up driving lanes, which he attacked aggressively.
This wasn't the Tyler Haws of a few weeks ago, who was content to be pushed around off the ball while the WCC refs stood idly by. No, this was the Tyler Haws who takes the game to his opponent and refuses to quit until they beg him to stop. It was truly a sight to behold. And lest we forget, he is only a sophomore. Good gracious.
Davies was similarly excellent, although in his own way. While he was seemingly willing to cede the offense to Haws and Carlino for long stretches of the game, he always made his presence felt at big moments — whether it was a monster block that got the crowd into the game early or a filthy LeBron James-style tomahawk dunk to ice the game late. And while he finished with a rock solid stat line of 22 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks, Brandon's biggest contribution to the victory didn't show up in the scorebook.
As a fan, you want to see your seniors set the tone for the rest of team. They are the leaders. We want them to set the example. Brandon Davies did that for BYU tonight. He gave his all on every single play. He competed for every rebound. He dove on the floor for loose balls. He chased Husky players down on the break. He played help defense like a madman. This was a guy who was completely unwilling to allow this to be his last game in a Cougar uniform, and that attitude set the tone for the rest of the team — especially his fellow big Nate Austin, who hustled like a man possessed right up until he fouled out in the closing minutes.
Without that energy and hustle, BYU probably wouldn't have weathered some of those deflating Washington runs. Or in other words, BYU wouldn't have won without Brandon Davies. Period.
All of which brings us to Matt Carlino, the most polarizing Cougar since... Well, has there been anyone more polarizing? True to his haters' favorite caricature, Carlino suffered through what could generously be called a rocky start to the game. He turned the ball over twice in the opening minutes, and it didn't get much better for the rest of the first half.
Clearly frustrated, coach Dave Rose pulled him earlier than usual in favor of freshman Cory Calvert, who provided a good initial burst of offense, got a little too confident, and then proceeded to play like his hair was on fire. During this time (and for a variety of reasons, most of them not directly related to Cory), Washington climbed back into the game and took a 35-33 lead into halftime. Meanwhile, Matt played only 8 minutes before the break, turning the ball over four times and failing to register an assist. This was certainly not the UCLA transfer's finest hour.
But while one can probably find a way to justify saying a lot of negative things about Matt Carlino, you can't say the kid doesn't play hard. He never quits on himself or his team. He leaves it all out there on the floor, on both ends, every single game. He did that tonight and, along with Davies, that commitment and boundless energy proved crucial for the Cougars when it mattered most.
Despite the bad first half, Matt came out firing on all cylinders after the break — and that is exactly when the game broke in BYU's favor. He simultaneously played with confidence, poise, and aggression. He took (and made) countless big shots and he dropped the fanciest of dimes to set up his teammates. He created a litany of Husky turnovers with his pesky perimeter defense, he sucked up rebounds like a human vacuum cleaner, and he took care of the ball like it was the Hope diamond. It was a half of, for lack of a better word, perfection.
People often ask me why I am such a dogged defender of Carlino's game. There are a lot of answers to that question, which I won't go into here. I could write thousands upon thousands of words trying to explain myself. But that second half tonight? That did all the talking for me. That is what Matt is capable of — and that is exactly why I believe that BYU is better when they have him on the floor, despite the rough patches.
When the final buzzer sounded, Carlino finished with 20 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds, with all but two points and a rebound coming after halftime. It was a masterful performance — as good as I have seen from any point guard this year. His many detractors will undoubtedly dwell on the first half, his four turnovers, a few poorly selected shots. I won't deny that all those things happened. But as amazing as Haws and Davies were (and they were truly excellent for the full 40 minutes), the Cougars were still losing until Matt Carlino turned it on. And that means something.
BYU will need great performances from all three of those guys if they hope to punch a ticket to New York for the NIT semifinals. It's not out of the realm of possibility — they are in a weak bracket to begin with, and they have another home game coming up in the second round — but they will need their "Big Three" to get them there, which means that the Cougars will only go so far as Carlino can take them.
More often than not, Cougar fans know what they are getting from Haws and Davies on any given night. They are known quantities. Matt is the wild card. When he plays well, BYU wins. When he doesn't, things get dicey. But make no mistake, the team desperately needs a third scorer to step up in order to succeed — and a season's worth of games has proven that no one else is really capable of doing it. It's Carlino or bust.
Beyond Tyler and Brandon, Matt is the only option we've got. His play is essential to this team realizing its full potential. He proved that again tonight. And with a talented Tennessee team likely looming this weekend, it's time for everyone to get on board — because the alternative ain't pretty.