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At halftime of Saturday night's basketball game, BYU football coach Kalani Sitake stood in the middle of the Marriott Center court and declared, "It's great to be home."
The former Cougar fullback evoked huge cheers as he unwittingly hit the theme of BYU's school year. Just about everybody in this athletic department is unbeatable in Provo these days. BYU's home-court domination continued with an 88-77 defeat of Pepperdine, a team that beat the visiting Cougars last weekend.
BYU lost nearly all of a 13-point lead in the middle of the game, but steadied itself and won convincingly. That's what these guys do on this campus, where home teams are thriving in 2015-16.
Kyle Collinsworth scored 24 points and broke BYU's career rebounding record as he helped the Cougars improve to 10-0 in the Marriott Center, contributing to the BYU reign on home courts and fields during this school year. In the fall, BYU went unbeaten at home in football (6-0), women's soccer (11-0) and women's volleyball (14-0). The women's basketball team is now 9-0, the men's volleyball team is 3-1 and the women's gymnastics team finished second in a three-way meet. That adds up to a 54-2 home record, not counting some defeats in the swimming pool.
At home, "I'm not sure why, but we seem to have a little more juice," Collinsworth said.
"It's just nice playing on the floor you practice on every day," said freshman Jakob Hartsock, in a statement that probably won't halt construction of the school's practice facility.
The big question becomes whether this basketball team will run out of home dates before it can sufficiently enhance its NCAA Tournament credentials.
BYU will host St. Mary's on Thursday and Gonzaga comes to town Feb. 27 to conclude the regular season. Those opportunities for breakthrough victories are the biggest reason I wouldn't totally dismiss the Cougars from NCAA consideration. If they win out in the West Coast Conference schedule with eight February games, they would have to get a look from the committee, regardless of what happens in the conference tournament in Las Vegas.
As of Saturday morning, the Cougars were nowhere close to making the at-large field in ESPN.com's Bracketology. They were not listed in the "first four out" or the "next four out" or even the "next four out" after that. Yet the possibilities exist for this team to make a move, considering the home-heavy remaining schedule.
The immediate priority, of course was beating Pepperdine. The Cougars lost 71-65 to the Waves last weekend in Malibu, where they faded at the end.
This time, BYU responded after the Waves cut the lead to two points. By the time Collinsworth grabbed one of his 10 rebounds and weaved 94 feet for a layup, the Cougars were in control with a 75-65 lead in the last nine minutes. Collinsworth described himself as the best rebounding point guard in the country, and he spoke the truth.
BYU (16-7, 7-3 WCC) is good enough to have beaten Gonzaga on the road, while absorbing three losses in conference play. The biggest difference at home is that the Cougars' runs last longer, so their lapses become more forgivable. And they always seem to get some unexpected help in the Marriott Center. Hartsock entered Saturday's game having scored a total of eight points. He hit three 3-pointers in a row in the first half.
So the Cougars came through, on a night when Sitake introduced his staff, loaded with BYU alumni who enjoyed their homecoming moment. Sitake's own chance to extend BYU's home-field aura will come Sept. 17, when UCLA visits LaVell Edwards Stadium. Between now and then, the basketball team has enough work to do, at home and elsewhere.