SAN DIEGO — In a normal visit to San Diego State, the BYU Cougars would have to face a trash-talking student section and a sellout crowd of 12,414 at Viejas Arena.
Not this time. Because of COVID-19, Viejas Arena was empty Friday, which allowed the Cougars to focus strictly on the No. 18 Aztecs.
Alex Barcello scored 22 points and Brandon Averette hit a huge 3-pointer with 51 seconds left for BYU, which blew a 17-point lead before beating San Diego State 72-62 despite Matt Mitchell’s career-high 35 points.
Playing in the empty arena, without the taunts of The Show, made a huge difference for the Cougars, who are still reviled even though the teams haven’t been in the same conference for a decade.
“I’ve had nightmares of us having zero points in the first 19 minutes game or something,” BYU coach Mark Pope said.
Actually, it was almost the opposite, as BYU used its size advantage and effective offense to take a 35-20 halftime lead before hanging on in the second half.
“Granted it’s minus the 15,000 and The Show, but to come in here and get a win is a huge deal against a big-time team,” Pope added. “I do think there’s a very, very legitimate chance they don’t lose another game this season until the postseason. They’re that good. And so to come in here and get out with a win is just a tribute to our guys and how tough they are.”
Mitchell was remarkable in scoring 26 points in the second half. He spurred a 14-0 run with three 3-pointers and then had a steal and dunk that tied it 61.
But BYU (7-2) regained control and handed San Diego State (5-1) its first loss. The Aztecs won their first 26 games last season and were the nation’s last undefeated team en route to a 30-2 record.
After Matt Haarms made a baseline jumper for a 63-61 BYU lead, Mitchell made one of two free throws. Averette then hit a 3 from straight on to put BYU up 66-62 with 51 seconds left.
“We’ve been doing this so long that can’t you just picture that 3?” Pope said. “We beat them without The Show in here, and I don’t know if we’d beat them with the Show in here. It’s just different. But can’t you just hear the gym? Like they’re coming back, people are tearing their clothes off and going crazy and on fire. And then Brandon Averette bangs that 3 and the place goes deathly silent.
“That’s how it felt when he shot it. In my mind, going live, that’s how it felt for him to step up and make that big shot. There were so many huge plays but that’s the fun one to talk about.”
Barcello made four free throws in the last 35 seconds, sandwiched around a missed 3 by Mitchell, and Connor Harding made two free throws for the Cougars, who had a 40-26 rebounding edge.
Haarms and Averette scored 10 points apiece.
“Matt’s performance was right up there,” SDSU coach Brian Dutcher said. “We can take no celebration in that because we lost the game. It was fun to watch Matt put us on his shoulders but we didn’t get a win, so it kind of went for naught.”
Mitchell said BYU’s defense “was fanned out a little bit and gave me space to work, gave me room to get to the basket, get to my spots. Some of my teammates couldn’t make shots and I felt like there was a lid on the rim so I got a little more aggressive and shots started falling.”
Jordan Schakel had only three points on 1-of-9 shooting after scoring a career-high 25 points in an 80-68 win at Arizona State on Dec. 10.
BYU’s biggest lead was 35-18 late in the first half before Mitchell made two free throws to make it 35-20 at halftime. SDSU shot just 25 percent and had eight turnovers in the first 20 minutes. Schakel had no points and missed his only two shots.
BYU: The Cougars used an impressive half-court offense in staying ahead of the Aztecs in the second half. Late in the first half, they got consecutive 3-pointers from Spencer Johnson and Barcello. The Cougars lead the series 49-25.
San Diego State: The Aztecs couldn’t handle BYU’s size early. They shot only 25% and had eight turnovers in the first half.
BYU: Hosts Texas Southern on Monday night.
San Diego State: Faces Saint Mary’s at Cal Poly SLO on Tuesday.