Provo • Crunch-time college basketball games such as Saturday's expected sellout against nationally ranked Saint Mary's, and next week's test against perennial West Coast Conference power Gonzaga, are the reason Charles Abouo decided to attend BYU, the Cougars' senior said Friday while acknowledging that when he signed, beating the Gaels and Zags in January and February was far from his radar screen.
"You could say they are do-or-die games," Abouo said. "Just like when we played [San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico in the Mountain West]. Full house, great opponents, a lot on the line. That's why we love them. That's what makes them so fun."
Looking for a little revenge, but mainly with their eyes on staying alive for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth and a fading shot at a WCC regular-season title, the Cougars play host to No. 21 Saint Mary's at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Marriott Center. The game will be televised nationally by ESPNU.
It's the middle game of a three-game stretch in which the Cougars (18-5) can probably earn, or fumble away, an NCAA Tournament berth. They edged past Virginia Tech 70-68 on Wednesday, and will entertain the WCC's other heavyweight, Gonzaga, on Thursday. Another home loss probably would put BYU in the NIT.
In the WCC, this is as good as it will get for newcomer BYU: games with conference title implications against the best the so-called "church league" has to offer. Having smoked BYU 98-82 in Moraga, Calif., on Dec. 29 and Gonzaga 83-62 on Jan. 12 at home, Saint Mary's sits atop the standings at 9-0 in league play, 20-2 overall, its best start in school history.
Lose this one to the Gaels, and the Cougars can probably forget about winning even a piece of the league title in their first WCC season.
"It is really emotional for us right now, because we want to go out and win these games," said senior Noah Hartsock. "We know what is on the line. It is not going to make or break the season, necessarily, but we need to go out and take care of business."
As of Friday afternoon, only a couple hundred tickets remained in the 22,700-seat Marriott Center, and the Gonzaga game was almost sold out as well. For the first time since before the 86-83 loss to Baylor on Dec. 17, hundreds of BYU students are camping out on the arena's outer concourse.
There will be 61/2 times more people at Saturday's game than the sellout crowd of 3,500 who attended last month's game at McKeon Pavilion.
"I think that if the players look forward to this challenge as much as the coaches look forward to this challenge, then you are going to have a great night," said BYU coach Dave Rose. "This is why [BYU players] come here. They come to play in front of a full house, and play a nationally ranked team."
Rose said Saint Mary's is worthy of its ranking, and called Gaels junior Matthew Dellavedova "a great floor leader" and "one of the best point guards in the country." Saint Mary's is tougher mentally, and tougher defensively, than most people think, he said.
"Our preparation will be a little bit different for this game just because we have played Saint Mary's before. Gonzaga, we will go back to the original model when we are playing a team for the first time," Rose said. "But as far as urgency is concerned, as far as our timetable is concerned, it will be pretty much the same."
Hartsock, Abouo, Brandon Davies and Brock Zylstra all said Friday that the Cougars have payback on their minds after seeing the Gaels keep the pedal to the metal all the way to the end of the disaster in late December, although BYU typically isn't a program that plays up the revenge angle.
"As a player you always remember those games," Abouo said. "They gave us a feeling we are not used to feeling. So it is still in our minds. … We will be ready for them."
Upcoming Y. games
Saturday • St. Mary's, 7 p.m., ESPNU
Thursday • Gonzaga, 9 p.m., ESPN2
Saint Mary's at BYU
P At the Marriott Center
Tipoff • 7 p.m. TV • ESPNU
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 18-5, 6-2; Saint Mary's 20-2, 9-0
Series history • BYU leads, 8-3
Last meeting • Saint Mary's 98, BYU 82 (Dec. 29, 2011)
About the Cougars • They have made just nine of their past 60 3-point attempts. … They were 21-of-24 from the free-throw line in Wednesday's 70-68 win at Virginia Tech. … Brandon Davies has gone 26-of-30 from the free-throw line in the past two games. … They are averaging 79.6 points per game and yielding 65.3 ppg.
About the Gaels • They have won 11 straight games and are ranked No. 20 in the coaches poll and No. 21 in the AP poll. … They defeated Loyola Marymount 71-64 on Thursday night in Los Angeles. … They are averaging 76.5 points per game and yielding just 60.1 ppg. … They are led in scoring by Matthew Dellavedova (15.7 ppg.) and in rebounding by Rob Jones (10.9 rpg.).