Cougars catch fire, run past Mercer and into NIT quarterfinals

Cooper Neill

Led by strong performances by their "Big Three" (and Brock Zylstra!), BYU scored early and often in a 90-71 rout of Mercer on Monday.

What's that saying? When it rains it pours? I don't know how true that old axiom is when it comes to meteorology or anything else in life, but it certainly seemed true on Monday night in the Marriott Center.

BYU fans have suffered (mostly impatiently) through a litany of poor perimeter shooting performances from their Cougars this season, but their prayers for more efficient longballs were answered in bunches from the opening tip of their team's game against Mercer. The home team hit its first three attempts from beyond the arc, setting a tone that would scarcely be broken over the next 40 minutes of play.

When the dust settled, the Cougars had hit 10 three-pointers (at an efficient 42 percent clip) for the first time in a long time en route to a convincing 90-71 demolition of the upset-minded Bears. With the win, BYU advanced to the NIT quarterfinals, where they will travel to Hattiesburg, Miss., to face Southern Mississippi on Wednesday evening. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU at 6:00 p.m. MST.

Make no mistake — this was an offensive showcase, first and foremost, as BYU struggled to bring consistent energy on the defensive end. To be sure, there were times when they showed flashes of brilliance (particularly the first 10 minutes of the game), but they too often allowed Mercer's bigs to catch the ball too deep in the paint, which led to the Bears scoring 30 points in the restricted area. It also didn't help that the visitors shot remarkably well from deep, connecting on 41 percent of their three-point attempts to keep the game within reach until late.

However, no matter how many times BYU's concentration lapsed defensively, it ultimately wouldn't matter. The Cougars simply ran a clinic on offense, and the Bears simply had no chance to keep up. As I've written many times before, when the "Big Three" all come to play at the same time, it's exceptionally tough to take down Dave Rose's squad. Well, they all came to play on Monday — and they even got some help, too.

Brock Zylstra has become the target for a lot of fan ridicule this season — and, I think, mostly unfairly. Sure, he's not the world's greatest player, and he's turned in some real clunkers from time to time. But Zylstra is actually a very solid player who does a lot of nice (if not always noticeable) things for this team, and that's a valuable auxiliary role that every team needs to fill. Brock gets a lot of heat, but he comes to work every day and does the job that Rose asks him to do. I can't fault him for that.

And nobody can fault the senior for the way he played on Monday in his last game at the Marriott Center. Zylstra seemed to be everywhere all at once, even earning effusive praise from (admittedly eccentric) ESPN color commentator and basketball legend Bill Walton. It was like a usual Brock Zylstra game — some scoring, some rebounding, some screening — except on steroids. The big difference? The shots finally fell. "Z" finished with 14 points on 4-for-8 shooting from deep, to go with his 6 rebounds and 2 assists. When he's providing a viable fourth option for BYU, opponents better just get out of the way.

But really, as good as Brock was, none of that matters if the usual suspects don't come to play and carry the load for the Cougars. And as has been the case for the past few games, Brandon Davies played an outsized role in establishing that focus.

The senior center was an absolute force, dominating the game offensively in a way that was entirely fitting for the final home game of his illustrious collegiate career. While he was a little hesitant to bang and push down low on defense (likely due to a reasonable fear of picking up early fouls), there was no such hesitance when it came to scoring the basketball, as Davies shredded the Bears to the tune of 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists.

There were several stretches where Mercer slowly whittled into BYU's lead and the Cougars were in need of someone to step up and staunch the bleeding. Davies was always there, usually with a clever move or deft fake, ready to make the big play when his team needed it most.

Brandon was so good that, when he came out of a late scrum holding his hand and immediately went to the locker room, several (including myself) went into near histrionics. And while Davies did return to the floor without any noticeable trace of injury, those few tense moments spent waiting to see if he would be OK spoke louder than anything else. BYU's goose is completely cooked without Brandon Davies. They have to have him on the floor as much as humanly possible, both for his ability and his energy. If they don't, they will lose — badly. If that's not senior leadership, I don't know the meaning of the term.

Not that he did it all by himself. Despite struggling to find open looks early against physical defense, Tyler Haws battled his way to his usual 24 points, mostly relying on transition opportunities and free throws to work himself back into a rhythm. And as anyone who has watched BYU play at all this season knows, once Haws finds his rhythm, it is truly a sight to behold.

Such was the case again tonight, as he tallied 16 of his 24 points after halftime and played a big role in continually keeping the lead just out of Mercer's reach. Without a few big, timely buckets from Tyler, it's unclear whether the Cougars would have been able to weather some of the Bears' larger runs.

All of which brings us to Matt Carlino, who turned in another virtuoso performance on Monday — and it was about more than just what showed up in the scorebook. To be sure, Carlino's stat line was exceptionally impressive: 18 points (on 6-for-13 shooting), 9 assists, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals in 34 minutes of play. But it was the intangibles that most struck me about his performance.

It's been an up-and-down year for Matt. He started the season in an awful slump, then rocketed into conference play like a man on fire, before cooling off significantly toward the tail end of the team's grueling WCC slate. As a result, his confidence and assertiveness as a team leader has waxed and waned accordingly. There have been times when he has looked tentative at the helm of the offense — unsure about his decision-making, and perhaps even wary of making a mistake that would invite more criticism.

But based on what we've seen over the last two games, those days might finally be behind him. After limping through a bad first half against Washington last week, Matt came out and played the best half of his career to close out that game, showcasing a swagger and confidence that clearly carried over into the second round. Against Mercer, Carlino was fully in control of the offense, vocally directing traffic and putting his teammates in spots where they could succeed. For the first time all year, it felt like he was asserting himself alongside Davies and Haws as an equal team leader — not just because he is the point guard and that position is nominally responsible for calling the plays, but because he now commands that level of respect and confidence from his teammates and (perhaps more importantly) from himself.

When Matt plays like this, with purpose and complete control, there are few better point guards out there. (Of course, it also helps when he shoots 50 percent from downtown too.) And when he can partner with Brandon and Tyler to form a three-headed beast that destroys every basketball-related object in its path? Well, watch out.

It's hard not to feel optimistic after a game like this, where BYU begins to play up to their considerable potential while simultaneously establishing that they're still eminently capable of doing even more. It is exciting. It is fun. It gives you hope — not just for the next few days, but also for the next few years. It's a truly satisfying feeling, one that was absent for much of this season until now.

But as great as this NIT run has been so far, this is where the rubber meets the road — literally. It's time for the Cougars to prove that they can do this in someone else's gym. It's time for the "Big Three" to show up in a big way in a hostile environment. It's time for them to finally get one of those "quality wins" everyone was talking about, even if it is a few weeks too late. And most of all, it's time for the program to reassert itself as one that can do hard things, that can succeed in the face of difficulty, that can win big games away from Provo — even if only to serve as a psychological boost for the many players who will suit up in BYU blue again next season.

Wednesday night in Hattiesburg will be a challenge for the Cougars. The Marriott Center magic won't be at their backs. Instead, they will hurtle headlong into an arena full of screaming southerners. They will have to play well to win. They will have to exorcise some demons. If they can do that, they will get another chance at redemption in New York next week. If they can't, they'll end their season knowing that they were a good team that accomplished a lot, but that never quite found a way to put it all together when it counted the most.

There's no shame in either outcome, but I prefer the former — and after Monday's performance, I'm feeling a little more optimistic that they might just be able to get there after all.

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