PROVO — Unsung but not forgotten.

That has summed up BYU junior forward Nate Austin this season.

He took center stage Saturday night when the Cougars defeated San Francisco 68-63 in a showdown of the league’s second-place teams chasing leader Gonzaga.

On this night, he was neither unsung nor forgotten. He was the key.

BYU coach Dave Rose described this game as one of those white-knuckle contests that demands that every player drain his tank. As the game progressed, both squads played desperation ball, possession by possession.

“We made a couple of more big plays at the end and that was the difference,” he said.

Few were bigger than a series of plays by Austin in crunch time when the Cougars had trailed the Dons for a long and futile 13 minutes of the second half. Star Tyler Haws was struggling with his shot and Kyle Collinsworth, the team’s leading scorer in the game, was on the bench in foul trouble.

After an Eric Mika free throw tied the game at 55-all with just less than eight minutes to play, Austin deflected a pass that led to a pair of free throws from Haws.

Austin then took a charge from Matt Glover on San Francisco’s next possession.

“I knew he was going to drive the ball and I just took position,” said Austin.

On the other end, after Mika missed a shot, Austin skied for the rebound and dunked it home. The Cougars led 59-55 at that point, and after playing the chaser the entire second half, found themselves in control at 61-55 after a one-handed Haws fadeaway jumper with just more than four minutes to play.

That gaggle of hustle plays by the 6-11 junior from Lone Peak absolutely put the Cougars in the driver’s seat the rest of the way and led to huge plays by Matt Carlino (nine assists), including a killer 3-point shot in the final 2:30.

“What you saw is what it takes,” said Rose when asked about Haws’ cold hand for most of the night. “It takes plays like those from a lot of people.” Haws, who’d just finished a run where he’d scored 48, 23, 38, 33 and 27 points, had 19 against the Dons — but he was just 7 of 20 from the field and 5 of 8 from the line.

Austin finished with a career-high 16 rebounds, nine of them in the first nine minutes and 10 at the half. He was the reincarnation of Dennis Rodman, sweeping the glass, taking advantage of San Francisco vacating to protect against the fast break. That also enabled Mika to post a career-high 13 boards.

“It was big,” said Carlino of Austin’s glass cleaning. “He got every board. It was crazy.”

BYU enjoyed a 47-29 rebounding advantage for the game and held a huge disparity in that category at the half (29-13), which prompted Don coach Rex Walters to bring his team on the court early at half for a scrimmage featuring box-out drills.

Walters his team had to give up something protecting the break while defending Haws — and it was rebounds. “We aren’t a big team as it is,” he said.

Enter Austin.

“At the end, I just expected him to grab them because he kept getting them. It was huge. He’s such a team guy. He does that everyday in practice,” said Carlino.

Austin said it was a big game BYU just had to win.

“We were playing desperate,” said Austin. “We played for the win and we had to get it.”

On his dunk? “I thank Eric for the miss,” he said.

Rose praised Austin’s consistency all season but singled out the last four weeks.

“His numbers are just winning numbers as far as deflections, steals, charges taken, rebounds and defensively he’s come to understand how he can help this team. The charge he took late in the game was huge,” said Rose.

“He ended up with eight rebounds on each end of the court. He’s filled a role on this team and actually has become a star.”

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.