PROVO — When BYU coach Dave Rose was talking about the Cougars' 38-37 rebounding advantage over San Diego State following Wednesday's 82-68 win, he could hardly contain the smile on his face.
"I thought we had a great defensive plan," he said.
Holding a team that lives on the offensive glass to eight offensive boards and only 10 second-chance points seems to validate that claim. The Cougars' three keys going in were: 1) to rebound the basketball; 2) rebound the basketball; 3) win by playing as a team.
The numbers show the Cougars were successful in all three.
"Tonight our guys were really engaged and locked in on rebounding every missed shot. It's hard to outrebound these guys," Rose said.
But what really helped the No. 13 Cougars get this critical Mountain West Conference win heading into Saturday's showdown with No. 10 New Mexico is how they converted winning the rebound war into points — to the tune of 20 fast-break points.
"Just in the way the game is played, when you play San Diego State, they rely so much on offensive rebounds to score that they're sending three, sometimes four guys. So if you can secure the ball and clear it, you're going to have an opportunity because there's only one guy back. I thought that was a huge key," Rose said.
The Cougars' swarming zone defense, which they played for the final 35 minutes, had a lot to do with keeping the Aztecs off the glass and out of the paint. It also helped the Cougars come up with 10 steals and force San Diego State into 16 turnovers. In addition to the lopsided number in fast-break points, the Cougars also had 23 points off of turnovers.
"The most important thing that we did defensively was rebound," Rose said. "We were able to limit their second shots, and they're really good at that. And then those rebounds led to some transition baskets for us and we were really good in transition opportunities."
Another number that shows the effectiveness of BYU's zone was the Cougars' 21-7 advantage in scoring from the free-throw line.
"Teams in a zone shouldn't foul as much because you're guarding space and an area and you're not always engaged in a man-to-man. But I really felt that in this game we were more on attack the majority of the game and that got them on their heels a little bit," Rose said.
The win improves BYU to 26-3 overall, and 11-2 in the MWC. New Mexico, who comes to the Marriott Center for a Saturday afternoon game, is at 12-2.
Junior guard Jimmer Fredette led the Cougars again in scoring with 26 points. He also dished out five assists, but uncharacteristically missed five free throws.
"He's good. He does that against everybody," Aztec coach Steve Fisher said. "He's the best in this league. He's really, really good. He's hard to stop . . . He is as good a guard as I've seen in this league, period."
Jackson Emery added 17 points and five steals. Jonathan Tavernari came off the bench to score 11, and freshman Tyler Haws chipped in 10.
"We got beat by a really good team tonight, and they beat us in a lot of different ways. Primarily, when we missed, they attacked and got way too many conversion easy opportunities," Fisher said.
Early on, however, the game was back and forth — with seven ties and 11 lead changes in the game's first 17 minutes. The Cougars struggled coming out of the gate to get open shots against San Diego State's quick defenders, and also struggled to get the game at their pace.
"They altered a lot of our shots," Emery said. "But once we settled down and played a lot of defense and got a couple of stops, then we started to do what we do best, and that's our transition game."
When Fredette hit a 3-pointer with three minutes to go in the half, it ignited an 11-0 run that put the Cougars up 36-25. Emery scored seven in the stretch. However, a 3-pointer by Aztec guard Chase Tapley at the horn cut the margin to eight at the break.
The Aztecs, with four 3-point possessions early in the second half, tied the game at 44-44. Over the next few minutes, however, the Cougars forced San Diego State into some tough perimeter shots, which resulted in long rebounds, and some transition baskets for BYU. A 14-2 run, which included threes from Fredette and Emery and two buckets from Charles Abouo, and the Cougars were quickly up 58-46.
"They weren't in their groove and they couldn't find it, and that's when you have to keep attacking," Emery said.
When Tavernari drilled a three from the left corner at the six-minute mark it started another 8-0 run that gave the Cougars a 17-point lead.
"Even when they scored we'd get the ball down as fast as we possibly could so they were always on their heels . . . that's why we're good. We put pressure on the other team the whole 40 minutes, or we try to," Fredette said.
The Aztecs cut the margin down to 12 on five straight points from Tapley, but another 6-0 run at the four-minute mark put the game out of reach.
"They're not 26-3 or whatever they are for nothing. They're good, and they proved it tonight against us," Fisher said.