LAS VEGAS -- The stat sheet was ugly and the final score certainly won't impress the NCAA tournament selection committee. But to BYU coach Dave Rose, the No. 8 Cougars' 64-58 squeaker over TCU on Thursday was a thing of beauty.
"I was really pleased with how we competed. I thought our team in crucial situations got big rebounds. We made big shots. We made big free throws. We were able to win that first-round game, which is very difficult, to play a team for the third time," Rose declared after the Cougars advanced to the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
The Cougars (29-3) will face nemesis New Mexico, which has handed them two of their three losses this season -- and by an average of 13.5 points.
As usual, Jimmer Fredette led the Cougars, scoring 24 points. But with suspended teammate Brandon Davies watching from the bench in a black dress shirt and slacks, the top-seeded Cougars had a tougher time than expected against a TCU team that went 1-15 in conference play before snapping a 13-game skid with a win over Wyoming in the play-in game.
The Cougars trailed the ninth-seeded Horned Frogs 34-33 at halftime and didn't take the lead for good until the 12:44 mark, when Jackson Emery swished a 3-pointer from the left corner to break a 40-all tie.
"We have seven players," TCU coach Jim Christian lamented. "We had a lot of guys that played 40 minutes. It came down to a couple plays. We left some points out there, a couple 2-on-1 breaks, a couple free throws. You have to make all those little plays to beat them. I think they're that good."
It looked as though the Cougars had finally shaken the Frogs (11-22) when Noah Hartsock's pair of free throws made it 60-51 with 52 seconds remaining.
Senior Greg Hill, returning to the court after sitting out much of the second half after spraining his left ankle, had a four-point play with 43 seconds left, then swished another 3 with 22 seconds left, pulling TCU to 60-58.
Fredette was fouled with 12 seconds remaining and the nation's leading scorer and league's offensive player of the year sank both foul shots. Emery, the Mountain West's defensive player of the year, then blocked Thorns' drive to the basket with 4 seconds left, finally sealing BYU's sweat-it-out win.
Hill and Thorns each finished with 15 points for the Frogs, and J.R. Cadot added 12.
"I feel like I went out a winner even though it was a loss," Hill said. "This team, TCU, going to be coming up real soon."
Charles Abouo chipped in 14 points for the Cougars, and Hartsock had 10.
The Cougars, who own the fourth-best RPI in the nation -- TCU is ranked 210th -- are refining their new four-guard lineup for the NCAA tournament following last week's suspension of Davies for violating the school's honor code.
This wasn't exactly the kind of performance that will wow the NCAA selection committee.
Fredette was just 7 of 21 from the floor and Emery went 3 for 13.
"Not a lot of times do we miss wide-open shots like that," Fredette said. "But sometimes that happens. We just kept playing, kept battling, still got the win. So that was good."
Rose attributed the poor shooting to impatience, a byproduct of TCU's heavy dose of zone defense.
"They controlled the pace of this game, played at the pace they wanted to," Rose said. "We got a little impatient at times offensively. But for the most part, we got good shots. We just were in a little bit of a hurry. I think a lot of that had to do with the pace defensively. We were on defense a long time. When you sprint that thing up there, you get in a hurry to score."
The Cougars were ranked third in the country when Davies, their sophomore center, was suspended, reportedly for having sex with his girlfriend, a violation of the Mormon church's standards. They were blown out by New Mexico in their first game without him before regrouping to beat Wyoming last week and earn a share of the conference crown.
Still, they dropped to eighth in the national rankings and probably will have to win this tournament and hope for a series of upsets to earn a No. 1 seed when the selection committee announces the brackets on Sunday.
"They're a much different team without Davies," Hill said. "He's a big inside presence, brings a lot of attention, which also gets a lot of attention off the key player."
On the other hand, the smaller lineup "makes them a tougher team to guard on the perimeter," Christian noted.
It's not like the Cougars are undergoing an extreme makeover, Fredette insisted.
"I don't think we have to necessarily reinvent anything," he said. "We still have guys on this team that can play and do the stuff. They're still going to play the same way. I don't think that we have to necessarily change the way we play to be a better team."
But they'll have to play better if they're going to make a deep run.
"Yeah, definitely we're looking forward to tomorrow," Fredette said. "This game's done with now. We got the win. That's really what matters. We keep moving forward. It's one and done. I'm just proud of my teammates, how we battled, found a way to win, even though we didn't play very well."