BYU basketball: Why this is a big matchup with No. 22 Saint Mary’s

It’s the final West Coast Conference matchup between BYU and No. 22 Saint Mary’s at the Marriott Center — and the Cougars would love nothing more than to beat the Gaels.

BYU and Saint Mary’s have built a fiercely competitive, colorful rivalry over the past 12 years.

“They have been really deliberate; They are going to walk the ball up. They are going to make you guard for 30 seconds. They are going to shoot two-foot shots in the paint. It’s not sexy basketball but they are a good team and get stuff done.” — BYU guard Rudi Williams on Saint Mary’s

This season, these two programs are going opposite directions. That aside, it’s another crucial matchup for both teams.

The fifth-place Cougars are trying to avoid a three-game losing streak Saturday (8 pm MST, ESPN2) when they host the first-place Gaels.

Saint Mary’s, winners of nine consecutive games, not only made its Associated Press Top 25 debut this week, at No. 22, but it is also No. 6 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. The Gaels are in the driver’s seat when it comes to the WCC regular-season championship race.

Once again, coach Randy Bennett has his team playing at a high level, especially on defense. Saint Mary’s is No. 5 nationally in team defensive efficiency. The Gaels are allowing only 57.2 points per game.

“What’s magic about Randy is that he can do the same thing over and over and over again, his guys know it, and they are committed to it, which is why he is one of the best coaches in the country in terms of the product he’s able to put on the floor, with the talent he amasses. It’s incredible,” said BYU coach Mark Pope. “This is Saint Mary’s. If you took off all their jerseys and watched them play a game, you would say “Yep, that’s Saint Mary’s.’ This is a great team that is playing really well together.”

As usual, the “gritty, not pretty” Gaels boast a well-balanced offense. Their leading scorer is freshman Aidan Mahaney (15 ppg), who has recorded six 20-point games this season, the second-most in program history (Patty Mills had eight as a freshman). In Saturday’s win over Santa Clara, Mahaney scored 20 points and hit 4 of 6 3-pointers.

Saint Mary’s also boasts center Mitchell Saxon (12.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg), guard Alex Ducas (12.1 ppg), guard Logan Johnson (12.1 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Kyle Bowen (6.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg).

“They have some superstars on this team,” Pope said. “This Kyle Bowen is a superstar. He’s not the headline guy on that team, but he’s probably the best defensive player in our league and he’s close to the best shooting percentage in our league.

“He doesn’t do a lot other than make catches and shoot threes, offensive rebound, screen and get guys organized, but you have a guy like that who is a veteran and is a superstar in all the winning ways, it’s incredible. Clearly, they’re the best team in our league and one of the best teams in the country right now.”

The Gaels’ pace tends to give opponents fits.

“They have been really deliberate; They are going to walk the ball up. They are going to make you guard for 30 seconds,” said guard Rudi Williams. “They are going to shoot two-foot shots in the paint. It’s not sexy basketball but they are a good team and get stuff done.”

“Nobody makes Saint Mary’s play fast; they just refuse to let that happen,” Pope said. “They’re a combination of physical, skilled and discipline enough and they know who they are. Every game we play against them turns into just a smash-mouth affair and it’s a beautiful game. I love it so much. We’ve had a great rivalry and I expect it to continue to be.”

BYU played two physical teams last week — Santa Clara and San Francisco — and didn’t fare very well.

But Saint Mary’s physicality is at a different level.

“I hope we’re ready. It’s just different. Santa Clara’s style and methodology is so distinct and the way they’re physical is so distinct,” Pope said. “Randy could take five guys that are 175 pounds and still put a really physical product on the table because of how he coaches, how they go about it and how they trick you into standing on defense a little bit.

“It’s not going to be the first physical contest we’ve been in, but it’s going to be a unique physicality of Saint Mary’s that is going to be a challenge for us and clearly a challenge for everyone in our league right now.”

This will be Williams’ first encounter against the Gaels but he’s heard all about the challenges they pose.

“(Coach) told us that when we drive to the paint that they are going to come up under you,” he said. “Don’t look to the bench or the refs for foul calls, just expect it to be a physical game and that we are going to get beat up. We are just going to have to play tough and play hard for 40 minutes.”

In BYU’s two losses last week, Williams came off the bench to score 24 points, including 20 in the second half against Santa Clara and he poured in a season-high 28, including 21 in the second half against San Francisco.

Williams started the first nine games but Dallin Hall replaced him in the starting lineup. Williams also scored 26 in the Cougars’ win over Creighton and 26 in their win over Utah coming off the bench.

Maybe it’s time for Williams to return to the starting lineup. BYU could use some consistent scoring early in games.

Of course, for the Cougars to have any chance at upsetting defensive-minded Saint Mary’s, they will need to curtail their turnovers. BYU, which had 34 turnovers in last weekend’s losses, ranks No. 335 nationally in turnovers per game.

No doubt, this final BYU-Saint Mary’s showdown at the Marriott Center is a big one for both programs, albeit for different reasons.

The Cougars, ranked No. 96 in the NET, are trying to halt their losing streak and avoid finishing in the bottom half of the WCC. Certainly, a win over the nationally ranked, first-place Gaels would be huge boost for BYU in its final season in the league.

Saint Mary’s, meanwhile, would love to notch a win in Provo as it seeks its first outright WCC regular-season championship since 2012.

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett watches from the sideline during a game against Gonzaga in Moraga, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

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