If you would have suggested to me following BYU's atrocious loss to San Diego in the West Coast Conference tournament that, in just three weeks' time, the Cougars would be heading to New York City to play in the most famous arena in the world for a chance to take home some hardware, I would have laughed in your face. Loudly.
Well, look who's laughing now.
BYU rode a scorching-hot Brock Zylstra to a big first-half lead and then used more excellent play by the team's "Big Three" to extend it after the break, eventually leaving Hattiesburg, Miss., with a relatively easy 79-62 victory over top-seeded Southern Mississippi. With the win, the Cougars now advance to face Baylor in the NIT semifinals on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN2.
No matter how you look at Wednesday's game, Zylstra comes out looking like the unquestionable hero. BYU stumbled out of the gate early, making mistake after mistake and providing further fuel for the Southern Miss faithful. Tyler Haws was struggling to find his stroke, Brandon Davies was getting bullied inside, and Matt Carlino was looking a little frazzled against the Golden Eagle's pressure defense. They desperately needed something big to happen to avoid letting this one slip away early.
Thankfully for the Cougars, Brock Zylstra happened. The senior proceeded to hit five huge three-point baskets before halftime, racking up 18 points in the opening stanza alone. (His previous season high for an entire game was, you guessed it, 18 points.) Every time Southern Miss started to gain a little momentum, Brock would silence the home crowd with another big play. Whether he was fading out of bounds in the deep corner or drawing an "and-one" foul from way out on the wing, everything he was putting up was going in. It was just one of those nights.
Watching Zylstra play basketball when his shots are falling is a pure joy to behold — not because he's an especially talented player, but because he clearly enjoys the game so much. With each successive bomb that he dropped, he would get more and more visibly excited until he was literally jumping up and down with a big grin across his face in dead ball situations. Brock catches a lot of flack from certain corners of Cougar Nation, some of it legitimate. But I don't think anyone on earth (not wearing a Southern Miss t-shirt) could not feel good watching him do what he did on Wednesday night and seeing how happy it made him.
Thanks to Zylstra's hot shooting and a late push to stem a Golden Eagle run right before halftime (not to mention a pretty buzzer-beater by Carlino), BYU took a 40-29 lead to the locker room. Considering how poorly the team had played in previous road situations this season, this was a promising result for the visitors — but they still had to finish the job.
The "Big Three" saw to that. Though Brock cooled down considerably after the break, Haws, Davies, and Carlino picked up the slack, running a finely tuned offense that picked apart Southern Miss' unconventional matchup zone for easy looks, both inside and out. Crisp ball movement and wise decision-making, particularly in the high post area, helped the Cougars consistently force the Golden Eagles into uncomfortable alignments and bad positioning, opening holes for shooters.
As a result, Haws finished with a typically excellent 25-point effort on 50 percent shooting, as well as 5 rebounds and 4 assists. After a slow start where the referees allowed an amount of physical play that briefly pushed him off his game, Tyler eventually reestablished himself and dominated the remainder of the contest, slicing and dicing the Golden Eagles in more ways than the human brain can even imagine. If you haven't noticed yet, he's pretty good at this game and there's not really much else that needs to be said about it.
Davies didn't reach the same prolific scoring levels of his first two NIT games, but his 12 points and 13 rebounds played a critical role against an undersized Southern Miss team. As the biggest man on the court at all times, Davies did a commendable job of patrolling the paint and defending without fouling. He got pushed around down low a bit early on, but once he got comfortable in the flow of the game and sized up how the referees were going to call things, he was extremely effective in using his length to make anything near the basket a chore for the opposition.
(One interesting note: As part of his zone offense, coach Dave Rose had Davies catching the ball in the high post for much of the game, which is not his natural scoring pocket. While Brandon can hit the mid-range jumper with reasonable consistency, he is at his best on the block. Rose eventually went to Haws in the high post for much of the second half, but pulling Davies away from the basket may have contributed to his lower-than-usual scoring output.)
Matt Carlino suffered through a tough shooting night, connecting on only four of his 14 attempts. However, the shots that he made were, in typical Carlino fashion, very big shots at very crucial junctures in the game — a deep three at the first half buzzer to extend BYU's lead to double-digits and a 25-foot bomb with the shot clock expiring to drive the final nail into the Golden Eagles' coffin late, among others.
But beyond his scoring (15 points ain't too shabby for an off-night), Carlino should get a lot of credit for executing a relatively clean game, despite facing some aggressive pressure from Southern Miss. The defense was essentially living in his shirt the entire game, trying to trap him and force him into turnovers every time down the court.
Nevertheless, Matt kept his head and largely made good decisions (with the exception of a few brain-dead Hail Mary pass attempts to Bronson Kaufusi that occurred when the game was already out of reach), finding the open man for any easy bucket whenever the defense became overaggressive and presented the opportunity. As a result, he tallied 9 assists for the third consecutive game, setting the tone for a hyper-efficient BYU offense that assisted on 24 of its 29 made field goals and continuing to show increased poise and confidence as the Cougars' floor general — all very good signs for the future.
Rose has relied heavily on a very tight rotation throughout the NIT, and that was no different in Hattiesburg. Only six BYU players saw more than 10 minutes of action, and one of those — freshman Cory Calvert, who looked badly overmatched in his 11 minutes — barely qualified. Otherwise, the five starters saw the lion's share of the minutes, with all but Nate Austin playing well over 32, and Austin likely would have played much more than his allotted 25 minutes if he could have avoided foul trouble. The sophomore big man made the most of his time on the court though, using all of his 6-foot-11 frame and relentless motor to impact the game through solid defense and aggressive rebounding. It was a strong, encouraging showing from a player who the Cougars will need desperately next season.
Other than the starters and Calvert, no one else really saw much time. Craig Cusick was buried on the bench for some unknown reason and only got eight minutes, Bronson Kaufusi came in and quickly picked up four fouls in four minutes (as per usual), and Anson Winder made a brief, frustrating cameo that ended in him essentially handing the ball to a Southern Miss player for a breakaway dunk. Rose has clearly decided that he can only trust his best players to get the job done in these win-or-go-home scenarios, and with the team now heading to the semifinals with nearly a full week of rest ahead of them, his decision seems to have proven wise thus far.
When taken in isolation, this NIT run may be Rose's best coaching job yet. Saddled with a team that had just suffered through a humiliating end to their regular season and that lacked any collective confidence whatsoever, he has somehow managed to refocus them (both tactically and mentally) and now finally has the Cougars playing their best basketball of the year — just in time for the big stage at Madison Square Garden.
Of course, Baylor — a team that defeated BYU by 15 points back in December — will have something to say about that, and Tuesday's game should go a long way toward solidifying just how far our boys in blue have come on this three-week journey back from the basketball abyss. Despite its inauspicious beginnings, it has been a fun ride thus far. Hopefully the Cougars can keep it running a little longer.