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Historically, BYU Basketball’s conference tournament success has come via luck.

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The Cougars have needed breaks to win in the past. They’ll need it in the future too.

BYU v Cincinnati X Wesley

Conference tournaments began in March of 1984. Since BYU’s National Championship season in Football (never forget), BYU has qualified for every conference tournament except one. In 1997, BYU basketball had a crummy team. The Cougars went 1-25 with their one victory begin over Utah State (never forget, even in the worst season ever BYU was still better than the Aggies).

Struggles in conference tournament play are nothing new. In fact, it is the old dusty furniture in the house of BYU hoops.

The Cougars have competed in 32 conference tournaments with 3 success stories. That means that the Cougars have won their conference tournament 9.4% of the time. BYU basketball isn’t quite paying a full tithe when automatic qualification for the NCAA tournament is at play.

When considering this, it is easy to think that BYU should have won more conference tournaments. BYU has made it to the championship game 12 times. That’s 37.5 percent of all BYU teams in conference tournaments have made a run to the final round. That’s pretty fantastic.

Winning the trophy in the last game has been so elusive that it seems like it might take a miracle for BYU to ever do it again. Well, it will. Because it has.

BYU coaches records in conference tournaments

Head Coach Conference Tournament win percentage Conference Tournament record First Round game Semifinal Round game Championship Finals
Head Coach Conference Tournament win percentage Conference Tournament record First Round game Semifinal Round game Championship Finals
LaDell Andersen 0/6 (0%) 2-6 (25%) n/a 2-4 (33.3%) 0-2 (0%)
Roger Reid 2/7 (28.6%) 9-5 (64.3%) 4-3 (57.1%) 3-1 (75%) 2-1 (66.7%)
Tony Ingle DNQ DNQ DNQ DNQ DNQ
Steve Cleveland 1/8 (11.1%) 8-7 (53.3%) 5-3 (62.5%) 2-3 (40%) 1-1 (50%)
Dave Rose 0/11 (0%) 14-11 (56%) 9-2 (81.8%) 5-4 (55.6%) 0-5 (0%)
BYU totals 3/32 (9.4%) 33-29 (53.2%) 18-8 (69.2%) 12-12 (50%) 3-9 (25%)

BYU won the 1991 Western Athletic Conference tournament, the 1992 WAC tournament, and the 2001 Mountain West Conference tournament. In each tournament victory, BYU has had to be remarkably lucky. Since it took a large dose of luck in the past, if Dave Rose is going to lead his team to conference tournament success, fortune must play are part of the future.

Just try to keep track of all the things that went right during successful campaigns.

1991 WAC tournament

“You know why we won? The ball bounced out. That’s why. Tonight the ball bounced out. You gotta be lucky. Tonight it was us that got lucky.” - BYU head coach Randy Reid (Deseret News, March 10, 1991)

The 1991 Cougars were led by Freshman Shawn Bradley. The Y finished with a 17-12 record in the regular season, but finished strong in conference play. BYU would be the 2nd place team. In order to make the NCAA dance, BYU needed to make a run in the WAC tournament.

The Y opened the tournament with a 10-point victory over Colorado State.

In the second round, BYU played the Hawaii Rainbows. Hawaii was a 6-seed that had upset New Mexico in their opening round game. The matchups between BYU and Hawaii were a showcase of opposite strengths. Hawaii’s guards vs. BYU’s front court.

Shawn Bradley had to leave the game after 4 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble — he would finish with 9 points and 8 rebounds. Senior leader Steve Schreiner scored 16 points, but asked to come out of the game because of illness.

Missing both of their front court players, Gary Trost checked into the game. Trost was heroic — 21 points and 12 rebounds to pick up the team in a major way when Bradley or Schreiner were sidelined. Trost wasn’t the only hero.

With 21 seconds left in regulation, BYU called timeout. Down 3 points, Coach Randy Reid drew up a play for guard Mark Heslop. Heslop had missed last-second game-winning shots twice during this season against East Tennessee State and Wyoming. This time Heslop would drain it! Heslop explained the play, “It was a set play. I got great picks from Shawn Bradley and Gary Trost, I faked underneath and then swung back out. I decided no matter what, I was going to launch it. I figured it was about my turn to make it.” (Deseret News, March 10, 1991)

Overtime.

In overtime, with the game tied on the final possession, Mark Heslop took another big shot that just missed. On the offensive rebound was 6-foot-1 Scott Moon. Moon was playing with an injury to his shooting hand. His shooting hand had a metal plate and six screws in it. He was basically a cyborg. Moon flinged up a hook shot (a hook shot!) prayer that bound around on the rim SEVEN (7!) times before the ball dropped through the hoop after the clock ran out.

The Cyborg Shot advanced BYU to the WAC tournament finals against their rival, the 8th ranked University of Utah.

The Utes had defeated BYU twice during the regular season — including a 1-point loss in overtime at the Marriott Center.

Not only did the the Cougars have to handle their opponents, they had to deal with the partisan Wyoming crowd. With the tournament being played in the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie, BYU never played the Cowboys, but the Wyoming faithful did their best to support whoever was playing against the Cougars.

They loudly participated in “Go Bows” cheers led by the Hawaii cheerleaders. They even took to cheering for the highly ranked Utes over the underdog Cougars. BYU head coach Randy Reid was asked about the unkind crowd and responded, “I look at it this way. We’re the underdogs. Saddam Hussein could have been playing tonight, and they’d have cheered him.” (Deseret News, March 9, 1991).

Utah had lost just 2 games all season heading into the championship game.

BYU did everything just right against the high-powered Utes. They absolutely muscled and beat up Utah defensively. The Cougars played slow. They worked the ball around and made Utah defend for the whole 45-second shot clock. With 7-foot-6 Bradley, high percentage shots simply weren’t available. The Cougars were ruthless defensively and committed to playing at a slow pace. The result was only 15 points scored by Utah in the 1st half. The lowest scoring half of basketball in Western Athletic Conference history.

Unfortunately, the Cougars were also struggling offensively. The Y only scored 18 points. 18-15 at halftime.

Early in the 2nd half, BYU pulled away and built a 29-10 lead. Utah came storming back after Utah coach Rick Majerus challenged his squad to get the game with 3 with 7 minutes left. Utah accomplished this when their star Josh Grant hit a corner 3 over the extended arm and jump of Shawn Bradley. Bradley crashed into Grant on his close out. Grant makes the free throw — 4 point play. 33-31 Cougars with 7 minutes left.

The Cougars thought they had put Utah away once again when guard Nathan Call made a layup with 15 seconds left in the game. Call was fouled on the make, but missed his free throw. 44-42 BYU.

Utah responded when Walter Watts who was sprung open by a screen, dunked on a Shawn Bradley challenge. Watts would get a trip to the free throw line. The game was tied at 44 with 4 seconds left. Watts was a 61.2% free throw shooter. He would miss the potential game winning free throw for the Utes.

Overtime.

The Cougars controlled the overtime period. BYU’s Scott Moon drove the lane and made a layup with 30 seconds left to give the Cougars a 4-point lead, 49-45, with 30 seconds left.

On the next Utah possession, the Utes found guard Byron Wilson with some space open at the top of the key. Moon scrambled on his close out and drew a whistle on Wilson’s 3-point shot. The ball dropped through the basket. Wilson would go to the stripe and make his free throw. 4-point play. Again. Tie game 49-49.

“I was beginning to think they were un-killable,” quipped Shawn Bradley. (Deseret News, March 10, 1991)

With the miraculous 4-point play, it sure must have felt like Lady Luck was wearing red. But on this night, she was wearing stripes and had a whistle.

On the next Cougar possession, Nathan Call drew a ticky-tack call on Utah’s Tyrone Tate with 8 seconds left. The Cougars were in the bonus and Call would make both free throws. 51-49 BYU.

Utah’s final play saw Josh Grant get the ball in his favorite corner 3 spot only to be challenged by two Cougar defenders, Trost and Call. Grant spotted Call’s assignment, Tyrone Tate wide open at the basket. Grant whipped a pass to Tate for the lay in. When Gary Trost saw Tate with the ball alone under the hoops, “I thought we were headed for double overtime.” Tate’s shot would bounced off the rim and out.

Tate quickly collected an offensive rebound and tipped it back at the hoop. Same result, no good. Finally, Utah’s Craig Rydalch skied to the ball and tipped the ball in through the basket at the buzzer. The referees waived off the basket ruling that Rydalch’s put back came after the time expired.

It was a finsh filled with controversy. Many felt that Rydalch’s shot should count — including ESPN’s announcing team. But ultimately the officials made the call. BYU had won the 1991 WAC tournament.

1992 WAC tournament

“I’ve made six or seven of those in a row. But if you ask me, it was probably luck.” — Kevin Nixon (Deseret News, March 15, 1993)

All it took to win the ‘92 WAC tourney was a miracle 54-foot shot.

Kevin Nixon came in off the bench after sitting for nearly 20 minutes and hits that shot. That’s some major luck.

The Cougars trailed by 11 at halftime. Slowly made their way back. Took their first lead of the game with 31 seconds left when Mark Heslop made a 3-pointer. 70-69 BYU.

UTEP’s Marlon Maxey made a basket with 2.4 seconds left to put the Miners in from 71-70. You know what happens next.

2001 MWC tournament

“Sometimes you just feel right. Everything goes in and just bounces your way.” — Mekeli Wesley (Deseret News, March 11, 2001)

In the 2001 Mountain West Conference tournament, BYU received a bit of bracket luck.

The Cougars finished the regular season as co-conference champions. They were the 2-seed in the conference tournament.

The Cougars semifinal game was against Wyoming. Terrell Lyday would scored 32 points. Lyday along with MWC Player of the Year Mekeli Wesley would combine to score 30 of BYU’s 35 2nd half points. Leading by as many as 18 points in the 2nd half, BYU won comfortably against the Cowboys.

On the other side of the bracket loomed the rival Utes — the top seeded team in the bracket. BYU had split their regular season series with Utah. Utah had been ranked as high as 13th during this season. However, there would be no rubber match between the Utes and Cougars. 5th place New Mexico upset the tournament favorites in the semifinals.

This was a fortunate break as the Lobos represented a far favorable matchup than Utah.

Even still, this game didn’t come easy. New Mexico out rebounded BYU 36 to 23, including 19 offensive boards for the Lobos. Usually, this would tell the story, but Mekeli Wesley was on fire. Wesley went 11-for-12 from the field for 30 points and 8 rebounds. During one stretch in the second half, Wesley scored 15 consecutive points for BYU. He was everything on that day. Near perfection.

This isn’t to say the rest of the team wasn’t hot. They were. The Cougars shot 6-for-11 from 3 point range in the championship game.

As a team, BYU shot an astounding 61.5% from 3 over the course of the conference tournament.

Despite the lava hot shooting, New Mexico was still right there. Down 2 points, the Lobos had a 3-point shot with 22 seconds left in the game. It just rimmed out. BYU gathered the rebound and made their free throws to salt away the game. 69-65 Cougars.

Combining the luck of avoiding the conference’s top seeded team, indescribably hot shooting, and a practically perfect game from one of the 15 best BYU basketball players in history the Cougars were able to beat a 5-seed by 4 points in the 2001 MWC tournament championship game.

Luck

Some people like to say that “luck is for losers.” But, it quite clearly is for winners too.

Conference tournament success has come for the Cougars when they hit buzzer beaters, have buzzer beaters waived off, had opponents choke away open looks, and benefitted from upsets on the other side of the bracket.

If the Cougars are going to come away from the West Coast Conference tournament this weekend as champions, it is fair to say that they will need some luck on their side.