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Traore inside, Saunders outside lead No. 20 BYU to 87-73 win over UCF in Big 12 Tournament

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — BYU coach Mark Pope was almost embarrassed to bring up what he viewed as a cosmic chain of events that began when his team was picked to finish 13th in the Big 12 and culminated with a win over UCF in the conference tournament Wednesday.

After all, when Taylor Swift is mentioned in Kansas City, eyerolls often follow.

“That's Taylor Swift's favorite number,” Pope said of the pop star, who is dating Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce — as if anyone needed clarification. "This morning I found out that our first game against UCF was on Jan. 13. Our second game was on Feb. 13. So we knew with our third game on March 13, the deck was stacked against these guys. It wasn't even fair.

“We're in Kansas City,” Pope added. “I mean, what?”

The win wasn't a given. But the No. 20 Cougars, who are seeded fifth in the tourney, made it seem that way. They scored the first 14 points, used a 12-0 run in the second half when things got close and cruised from there to the 87-73 victory.

“The focus if we were going to win this thing was on the defensive end,” the Cougars' Richie Saunders said. “It was no different this game: getting stops in transition, protecting the ball and being strong with the ball.”

Fousseyni Traore had 14 points and 10 rebounds to lead the way, while Saunders and Dalin Hall scored 13 apiece and Trevin Knell had 12, sending BYU (23-9) into a quarterfinal game Thursday against fourth-seeded and No. 25 Texas Tech.

“BYU played a really good game,” UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. “They started off hot. Really shot the 3-ball well to start off, something they've done well all season. ... For us, we have to get better at what we do, with execution defensively.”

Darius Johnson did everything he could to keep No. 12 seed UCF alive, hitting six 3s and scoring 32 points. But he didn't have much help in the second half, when the Knights (17-15) briefly trimmed an early 18-point lead to just three midway through.

BYU answered with a 12-0 run that gave it the breathing room it needed to coast into the next round.

“Every second half, the focus is, ‘We’re going to win this thing on the defensive end.' It was no different in this game," Saunders said. “Getting stops in transition, protecting the ball, being strong with the ball.”

The Knights made their Big 12 tourney debut Tuesday, when they ran roughshod through Oklahoma State. And they still might have been catching their breath when their second-round game tipped off, because the Cougars ran right over them.

They opened their first tournament in their new league by racing out to a 21-3 lead.

The run by one of the nation's prolific perimeter teams was fueled by 3-pointers, not surprisingly, along with some suffocating defense, which held UCF without a basket until Jaylin Sellers converted a three-point play about five minutes into the game.

The Knights eventually found their footing, and despite a technical foul on their bench that gave BYU a couple of free points, they slowly trimmed their deficit to 47-38 by halftime. And when C.J. Walker got hot to start the second half, and Johnson hit 3s on consecutive possessions, the Knights had closed to within 59-56 with 13 1/2 minutes to go.

That's where the comeback fizzled.

The Cougars started getting to the foul line, Saunders hit a 3 from the wing and Pope's team unleashed that 12-0 run over the next four minutes, which pushed the lead back to 71-56 and effectively put the game away.

“We were able to do what we do offensively,” Saunders said, “and either push in transition or get into our half-court sets, which — because people like Fousseyni were protecting the ball — we were able to get the open shots we thrive on.”

UP NEXT

UCF will probably play somewhere in the postseason, thanks to the strength of schedule afforded by the brutal Big 12. But it won't be the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in eight seasons with Dawkins on the sideline.

BYU lost to Texas Tech 85-78 on the road in its only regular-season meeting in January.

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