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BYU keeps clicking, extends special season

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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DENVER -- They stayed well after the final buzzer. Well after the radio and television crews did their postgame wrap-ups and reporters asked all their questions to the men wearing the dominantly white jerseys; well after the wires were coiled up and arena workers began sweeping away the debris under the chairs and in the aisles.

The scoreboard overhead was still on, though, burning white-hot bulbs that blazoned "BYU 89 GONZAGA 67."

Arena security let about nearly 1,500 of those BYU fans stay -- stand, dance, jump and scream -- in their seats and hoot and holler and wave their posters until they got their way: They wanted the players to come out for a curtain call. Eventually, they did. A number of BYU players curled around the hallway near their locker room and climbed up into the stands to shake hands and share smiles with the horde that hung around.

The Cougars had easily just won their way into the Sweet 16 for the second time in school history and the first time in 30 years. It was time to party together inside the Pepsi Center. It was time for the fans and Cougars' players to embrace for a few minutes for the sake of a massive achievement. The Cougars set a school record with 31 victories with their gashing of Gonzaga, putting up the second-most points on the Bulldogs this season.

Remember when this team lost Brandon Davies and it was suddenly considered a long shot to win two games in this tournament? You see how Brigham Young played for two nights and laugh at that notion.

"I thought for 40 minutes, we might have been as good as we've been all year," BYU coach Dave Rose said.

This would make sense to Robert Sacre, the Gonzaga center who proclaimed BYU was most certainly not the best team he and his teammates played against this season.

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"No. No. No," Sacre said when asked if the Cougars were the best opponent. "And that's the harsh part, because we could've played a lot better than we did. BYU wasn't the best team we played this year. I feel like we played a lot tougher competition. I think that's the frustrating part. ... It's a sick feeling. Can't do much about it."

The Cougars made Sacre so ill because they negated his interior impact. BYU sank a silly amount of 3-pointers (14) to keep Gonzaga well at bay throughout the game, ending the hot Zags' season and 10-game winning streak. Sacre's sentiments weren't out of nowhere.

Going back to what's mentioned above, coming in, BYU was considered vulnerable. Without Davies, there was a lack of inside presence to compete with the talented, robust Bulldog bigs -- or so the thinking was.

"We were aware of what's going on, and a lot of people picked Gonzaga. We didn't really worry about it too much," Jimmer Fredette said. "We were definitely aware of it. That's something that we've handled this year."

Again, back to the doubt-without-Davis issue. It's something on this team's mind. Saturday night's victory meant something for BYU, big-picture, knocking down the second-weekend barrier. Getting there meant one more prove-you-wrong moment by easily thumping the Zags.

And BYU was a 3 seed playing an 11! It still has that 3 attached to its name for the duration of this lovely tournament. Yet this team continues to be an underdog?

"You know, maybe. I think so. Maybe people still think that. But, you know, it's just a matter of believing in ourselves," Fredette said. "We knew if we played well, we could put a game together and shoot the ball. We have tough players on this team, tough-minded guys. A lot of senior leadership to get us ready to play. I think that we're still a very, very good team. I've been telling everybody that all along."

What a journey it has been in what's clearly the most memorable season in BYU history. After his players left to head back to the locker room, Rose got emotional, sitting alone at the podium in the postgame presser.

"Well, you know, it's been a long time for our ...," Rose started to say, then the tears clogged his head before he continued. "And I'm happy, really happy for them. I'm happy for our players, happy for our coaches, our administration. I mean, everybody is in this. We're all in this together. This is a special team."

Rose deserves a lot of credit for keeping his team on the straight and narrow -- would (can) BYU be anything but that? -- and getting them to the second weekend. Ask Rose, Noah Hartsock, Charles Abouo, anyone -- they'll all tell you the loss to New Mexico on March 2 led to a regrouping and reassembling of what this team could and couldn't do. Knowing their identity without Davies was critical in succeeding without him.

"The most important thing that we talked about was that we needed time," Rose said. "Anytime you get in a situation like that, we didn't have a lot of time to adjust for that game. ... What I wanted to make sure is that our players understood that this is still a really good basketball team, OK? And what we need, give the coaches a little bit of time, give the players a little bit of time to adjust to the situation."

They've fully adjusted, knocking down one barrier and record after another from the Danny Ainge era.

"It's exciting. I'm pretty sure Danny Ainge doesn't mind if we keep breaking his records if we keep winning," Jackson Emery said.

So long as Fredette keeps putting up 34, like he did Saturday night, and gets help from Emery and the team gets such huge fan support, the run will continue. When BYU's clicking, they're as dangerous as any squad still standing. I didn't get to see if Fredette made his way into the mob with some other teammates, but he did give them requited love for their passion and creativity.

"They're very clever with all the signs that they have," he said. "So it's a great feeling to be able to see us as a team being able to look up in the stands and see all these signs, see us win and have everybody cheering for you at the end. It's a special moment."

A moment that ended with BYU players fraternizing with the loyal ones who stuck around in the Pepsi Center, celebrating with local celebrities who'll be legendary in Provo for years thanks to winning two in the tournament. It was a celebration worthy of a Final Four trip. For BYU and its fans, a Sweet 16 showing means as much as a Final Four.

When you go 30 years between winning two games in the bracket, can you blame them?

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