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BYU Mounts Second-Half Comeback In WCC Tournament Win Over Portland

Mar 3, 2023, 9:24 PM | Updated: 9:33 pm

Richie Saunders, BYU Basketball, Mark Pope...

BYU basketball guard Richie Saunders scored a career-high 18 points in the WCC Tournament against Portland. (Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

(Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

Like everything, this season for BYU basketball, the opening game in the WCC Tournament for the Cougars had a lot of twists and turns. But it ultimately ended on a high note.

BYU took down Portland 82-71 in second-round action of the 2023 WCC Tournament. The outcome wasn’t a surprise, as BYU was a favorite. But considering how the game started, the final score was a surprise.

BYU trailed Portland 43-30 at the half and looked like a lifeless team ready to move on to the Big 12 era. ESPN’s win probability gave Portland an 80% chance of defeating BYU.

Then the second half turned everything around as BYU regained the lead in the first five minutes of the second half. However, the entire second half was a different story for BYU as they scored a season-high against D1 competition, 53 points to secure a win.

Freshman Richie Saunders was the key for BYU throughout the night. The former Wasatch Academy star scored a career-high 18 points while also pulling down seven rebounds, and coming up with a block, steal, and an assist.

BYU moves on to the quarterfinals of the tournament, where they will face four-seed Loyola Marymount on Saturday at 8 p.m. (MT) on ESPN2 and KSL NewsRadio.

Portland put BYU’s season on the ropes in the first half

After a slow start from both teams on the offensive end, Portland began catching fire from three. The Pilots built up a 14-4 lead forcing Mark Pope to burn an early timeout at the 14-minute mark.

Freshmen Richie Saunders and Dallin Hall then gave BYU some momentum with a pair of threes to cut the deficit to five.

After the hot shooting blitz, the Pilots began to cool off, and BYU was heating up. Each team with 8:51 remaining attempted ten threes and knocked down four apiece. Gideon George hit a corner three that made it a one-possession game.

After the timeout from Portland, Pilot star Tyler Robertson knocked down a bucket that saw Trey Stewart commit a flop. It resulted in a three-point possession for UP. But then Saunders answered back with another three of his own.

Then a pivotal moment in the game took place with 5:54 left in the half, Portland standout Moses Wood picked up his fourth foul. It felt like a game-changer as BYU only trailed by four points.

The absence of Wood was no issue as the Pilots built up their lead to as high as 14 points in the first half. Robertson scored 14 points in the first 20 minutes, with Kristian Sjolund adding another 11.

Portland built that lead while Fousseyni Traore was out with two fouls of his own.

BYU shot only 32% from the field, while Portland knocked down 52% of their shots.

Portland went into the half with a 43-30 lead.

BYU basketball mounts an impressive comeback

BYU didn’t roll over. Instead, they came out strong to begin the second half knocking down four consecutive field goals to bring the lead down to five at 45-40.

Then out of the first media timeout, Spencer Johnson knocked down a three of his own, putting BYU down by only two. Fousseyni Traore hit a layup on the next possession to tie it up, and Jaxson Robinson put BYU back in front at the 15-minute mark with a three.

BYU continued to surge to a nine-point lead with 9:13 remaining after Gideon George buried a three. Portland has struggled from three after their early success. The Pilots started 0-for-6 from distance in the second half.

Then things started to turn in favor of Portland, led by Robertson. BYU had no answer for him in the post, and he helped get Portland back within three points.

With 3:30 remaining, Robertson made a soft pass that Rudi Williams got in the passing lane. It caused a loose ball that Spencer Johnson came up with, who then found a wide-open Richie Saunders for a bucket to keep BYU up 72-67.

Saunders finished the game with a career-high 18 points. He and Fousseyni Traore were dominant in the second half.

Portland head coach Shantay Legans was concerned about BYU’s ability to rebound coming into the matchup. Those fears materialized as BYU grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the second half.

The work on the glass and the defensive effort ultimately got BYU out in front for good as the Cougars pulled away with an 82-71 victory.

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Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s coverage of BYU moving to the Big 12 Conference on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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BYU Mounts Second-Half Comeback In WCC Tournament Win Over Portland