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Provo • In the last few minutes of their convincing 91-68 win over West Coast Conference nemesis Loyola Marymount on Saturday night, the BYU Cougars were dancing to the music coming out of timeouts, hugging and high-fiving each other and generally carrying on as if they had just aced all their final exams.
Seemingly, the swagger and confidence that carried them to some big road wins in November and December is finally back. Funny what a three-game homestand against teams they were favored to smoke by more than 10 points each, and did, will do for a team's psyche.
"I feel like we have changed a lot since we were on the road last," guard Matt Carlino said. "We're getting better."
No doubt, it was a beneficial three-game series at the Marriott Center for the Cougars (11-7, 3-2), and not just because they beat San Diego, Pepperdine and LMU handily to get back into the West Coast Conference race.
They got Carlino going offensively especially Saturday when he burned LMU for 18 points on 6-for-12 shooting played much better defense than they did during their four-game skid, and discovered they could win without freshman Eric Mika, who missed the last two games with that nagging hip injury suffered against San Diego.
In addition, junior college transfer Skyler Halford emerged as a scoring threat, despite Saturday's 0-for-5 shooting performance, and 6-foot-7 forward Josh Sharp showed with a 10-point, four-rebound outing in his second start of the season that they've got a bit more depth inside than suspected.
It was all needed because BYU's next four games are on the road, beginning Thursday at second-place San Francisco (7 p.m. MST, ESPNU). The Cougars will stay in the Bay Area for a Saturday showdown with much-improved Santa Clara, return home for a few days, then travel to Portland and Gonzaga the following weekend.
"I mean, you look at the next couple of weeks, and I think everybody knew how important these three home games were," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "This is a tough stretch we have here, and we are going to have to be really tough, and we are going to have to be really together, and take them one at a time. First things first, San Francisco."
The Dons (11-7, 4-2 WCC) fell 88-73 at Saint Mary's on Saturday and out of a tie with Gonzaga for the league lead. They have yet to beat the Cougars in a WCC game at War Memorial Gymnasium, but have come close each time.
While Sharp, Nate Austin and even freshman Luke Worthington played well in spurts the last few games, Mika is a cut above and will be sorely needed if the Cougars hope to snap their four-game road losing streak.
"The thing with Eric is he wanted to play, but wasn't ready [physically] to play," Rose said. "But this was really good for him. He pushed himself really good in the shootaround. He pushed himself really good in the warm-ups, but still wasn't in a position to give us what we needed. Hopefully, he's on the mend, and he's healing and we will get a lot more out of him Monday, and then see where we are Tuesday and Wednesday."
Haws said winning without Mika gave them a shot of confidence.
"We heard [Saturday morning] there was a chance he might be able to play," Haws said. "But he couldn't and lots of guys were able to step in and fill that role. We have to get him healthy. He's a huge part of our team, and I expect him back next week."
BYU at San Francisco
P Thursday, 7 p.m. TV • ESPNU