It turns out it was worth the wait for Eric Mika and BYU.
The sophomore center last took the floor on March 20, 2014 in an NCAA tournament loss to Oregon. He made his return against Princeton on Monday night after a two year mission trip.
It didn’t take long for him to shake off the rust in an 82-73 BYU win.
After starting the game 1-for-4, Mika ended up posting a career high in points (26), rebounds (18) and free throw makes (12), as he powered the Cougars past a good Tigers team.
BYU coach Dave Rose wasn’t sure what he would get from his team before the game. Do-it-all forward Kyle Collingsworth and Chase Fischer were gone, and he’d have Mika and freshman TJ Haws in important roles.
"It is a young group," Rose told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We are going to see a lot of stuff. We are going to see things that will excite you, and we are going to see things that make you go, 'whoa, that probably wasn't the right play.' But we will watch them grow together. I am excited to get started."
“Things that excite you,” was the operative term against Princeton. Besides Mika’s dominance down low, Haws (20 points, 5-for-11 FG, 7-for-8 FT) was a creative scorer in his debut, and looked deadly in transition with sophomore Nick Emery (15 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists).
A 10-0 BYU run late in the first half that opened up the game was fueled by Emery and Haws slicing through the open court. Mika’s steady presence in the paint helped keep that lead intact.
One game into the season the Cougars have not proven they’re an offensive force. But the Mika-Haws-Emery trio did show that it could have the firepower to compete with Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in the WCC.
For Princeton, it wasn’t all bad.
The Tigers, like BYU, were playing their opening game, and missed 14 three’s in the first half. They shot 28.6 percent from distance for the game, and this proved fatal for a team that relies heavily on the three point shot.
Yet they weathered the poor shooting and Mika’s career night to claw back into the game midway through the second half. Nick Cannady (18 points, 6 rebounds) and Steven Cook (12 points, 4 rebounds) spurred a run that brought the Tigers to 61-59 with just over eight minutes left.
BYU ultimately put the game away, but were able to do so with Princeton forward Hans Brase out of the game due to fouls. The senior center missed all of 2014-15 with a knee injury and had a solid return himself (11 points, 4 rebounds).
The headlining return, however, belonged to Mika.