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Las Vegas

San Francisco's last shot bounced off the rim, and the BYU Cougars celebrated as if they had won something important Monday night.

Unofficially, that's true.

For the moment, all their 79-77 overtime victory earned them was the right to meet Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference tournament title — only 19 hours later at the Orleans Arena.

But when Selection Sunday arrives, this will be the achievement that secured BYU's NCAA Tournament bid.

Of course, the Cougars (23-10) can eliminate all of the mystery and earn an automatic invitation with a win Tuesday night. That's asking a lot, considering the level of effort that went into beating USF.

The Cougars' performance hardly was overwhelming, enabling USF coach Rex Walters to maintain his belief that the Dons were the best team in the tournament.

It's fine for Walters to praise and defend his own players, but he went too far in this postgame statement: "There may be a lot of Mormons mad at me, but I don't give a rat's you-know-what what the state of Utah thinks of me."

Somehow, I think that comment may resurface next winter when Walters comes to Provo.

There's some basis for his belief, considering the Cougars couldn't rise above USF in regulation, even after they led by eight points in the last six minutes. BYU failed to score on its last nine possessions, totally botching the design and execution of their final opportunity that ended with Kyle Collinsworth's forced-up shot being blocked.

"We got stuck on 64 for quite a while," said BYU coach Dave Rose.

No kidding. But the Cougars never trailed in overtime, making just enough free throws to stay ahead. BYU allowed the Dons to launch a winning 3-point attempt, but Anson Winder's defense hounded Avry Holmes into a wild shot from the right corner that missed.

BYU won a tough game, beating USF for the third time this season.

If the Cougars had lost, this game would have been memorable because of Tyler Haws' shooting troubles and BYU's inability to seize control. Because they won, the Cougars can point to a variety of players who did just enough to overcome Haws' 5-of-19 night that included only one basket from outside the paint.

BYU got 18 points and 12 rebounds from Collinsworth, 15 points from Winder and 11 points and 10 rebounds from Eric Mika, who returned to the starting lineup. Matt Carlino scored all of his 11 points in the second half, providing an inspirational lift.

Haws helped by making all 14 of his free throws, and the two foul shots that Collinsworth made with 28 seconds left in overtime were even more impressive, giving BYU a 76-73 lead.

He's only a 57-percent shooter, but Collinsworth stepped to the line with confidence, determined to reward his teammates' effort. That's the kind of toughness it took to win this game, and that's why BYU deserves to play in the NCAAs — regardless of what happens against Gonzaga.

The Cougars could have or even should have lost to USF, but they performed well enough to win. That's what counts. For all of their offensive struggles, they kept battling defensively at the end of regulation, keeping the Dons from scoring in the last three minutes. And then they surged ahead in overtime, thanks to three more defensive stops.

So now comes BYU-Gonzaga III. The Bulldogs won by 15 points at home in January; the Cougars won by eight points at home Feb. 20.

Gonzaga barely survived a tough battle with Santa Clara in the WCC quarterfinals before throttling Saint Mary's in the semis; BYU outlasted USF in the semis after toying with Loyola Marymount.

Based on Monday's level of effort and degree of difficulty, the Cougars may find themselves in a similar position as in 2011, when they wore down in a loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament's championship game in Las Vegas.

"I know we'll get a great effort," Rose said. "Hopefully, we can sustain it for 40 minutes."

The Cougars needed 45 minutes Monday to put themselves in this position. The bottom line is, they did what they had to do — for the sake of this tournament, and the bigger one to come.

Twitter: @tribkurt