Hoffman Estates, Ill. • Their starting point guard was new, and the arena was a long way from the Marriott Center, with a totally different atmosphere and setup, not to mention 10,000 or so fewer fans. But the improving BYU Cougars showed again Friday night that they just might be able to shoot the ball in the absence of Jimmer Fredette, Kyle Collinsworth and Jackson Emery, last year's sharpshooters on that Sweet 16 team.
Facing Nevada in a semifinal game of the Chicago Invitational Challenge, the Cougars shot their way into Saturday night's final against one of the best teams in the country, clicking at 54.4 percent from the field in a 76-55 crushing of the Western Athletic Conference team.
"It needs to expand as the season goes on, but guys are taking really good shots," said coach Dave Rose.
And making them.
The Cougars were 8 of 18 from 3-point range, continuing the hot streak established the past two games when they were a combined 27 of 48 against Longwood and Prairie View A&M.
Nevada (3-3) was expected to defend better than those lower-level teams, and did that before losing interest a bit in the second half. Frustration was evident on the faces of the Wolfpack players as shot after shot hoisted by a Cougar found the bottom of the net.
"I think we have made a real effort on shooting three [different] types of threes. We were shooting five types of threes early on in the year," Rose said, talking about how fastbreak threes, threes after an offensive rebound, and threes after the ball first goes into the post are the types they want.
Redshirt freshman Anson Winder got his first career start at point guard and played well with nine points, four rebounds and four assists with just three turnovers, but the old reliables got the job done when they were needed the most.
Seniors Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo combined to go 17 of 24 from the field for 43 points, and Abouo led the team with eight rebounds.
"We work on that every day in practice, [shots] from 10 to 15 feet. We got a lot of players that can hit that shot, so that's a big advantage that we have," Hartsock said.
The Cougars (4-1) jumped out to a 24-6 lead after a 16-0 run and looked like they were going to run the Wolfpack out of the Sears Centre Arena, which holds 11,000 but drew no more than 1,000 Friday, easily the smallest crowd that will watch BYU play this season. But Brandon Davies went to the bench with his second foul, Nevada coach David Carter called for a momentum-altering halfcourt trap, and the Wolfpack got back in it.
Deonte Burton's long 3-pointer beat the halftime buzzer to cut the BYU lead to seven, and Nevada went to the locker room feeling good about itself.
But the Cougars upped the aggressiveness in the second half, rebounded better and won going away.
"They didn't hit a lot of outside shots the first half, but it was just offensive rebounds, second-chance points," Abouo said. "We talked at halftime and made a more conscious effort to make sure we got rebounds and pushed the ball."
Nevada got within six in the second half, 50-44, but a five-minute scoring drought enabled BYU to pull ahead again.
So the Cougars move on to what will arguably be their biggest test of the season. Eleventh-ranked Wisconsin (5-0) pounded Bradley in front of 5,000 or so fans who made the short drive over from Madison, and will provide a definite advantage Saturday night (6 p.m. MST, Big Ten Network).
"Wisconsin is a whole different animal than what we just played," Rose said.