Denver • Trying not to belie their reputation as a mature, experienced and even-keeled basketball team, the BYU Cougars went into Saturday’s NCAA Tournament game against Gonzaga saying they couldn’t care less that they weren’t favored to win, despite having a seeding eight lines better than that of the Bulldogs.
Don’t believe them, although Jimmer Fredette did allow later, “We were aware of what was going on.”
Playing with the same fire and confidence they displayed before losing sophomore center Brandon Davies to a suspension seven games ago — and with a bit of an edge for the lack of respect they’ve received the past few days — the third-seeded Cougars routed the shell-shocked Zags 89-67 at the Pepsi Center, punching their ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years.
“It’s been a long time for our fans,” said an emotional coach Dave Rose, who teared up a couple of times in the postgame news conference. “I’m really happy for them. I am happy for our players, happy for our coaches, our administration. I mean, everybody is in this. We are all in this together.”
Having regained their long-lost shooting touch at the perfect time, the Cougars (32-4) were 14 of 28 from three-point range in burying their future West Coast Conference rivals, including a 9-of-17 performance from beyond the arc in the first half, sending the message loud and clear that they planned on handling Gonzaga’s clear advantage inside with dagger after dagger from deep.
Next up in the Big Dance is a tango in New Orleans on Thursday with Florida, the team the Cougars eliminated last year in double overtime, 99-92, in a first-round game. It will be BYU’s first Sweet 16 game since Danny Ainge led it to the Elite Eight in 1981.
“It’s a great moment for this school,” said Fredette, who made seven 3-pointers en route to a game-high 34 points, the 23rd time in his career that he has scored 30 or more. “We haven’t been here for the last 30 years. This is an accomplishment in and of itself.”
And it came when it wasn’t really expected, given that the Cougars were 4-2 since Brandon Davies was dismissed from the team, including a pair of blowout losses to New Mexico and San Diego State. A subpar shooting performance in Thursday’s 74-66 win against Wofford only produced more doubters.
“A lot of those national [television] guys didn’t give us a chance to win this game,” said Logan Magnusson, who came off the bench with Stephen Rogers (10 first-half points) and James Anderson to give the Cougars much-needed contributions when Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo got into early foul trouble.
Hartsock still had 13 points, including a 3-pointer to open the game that set the tone, along with a 3 a few minutes later by Jackson Emery. Breaking out of a shooting slump in a big way, Emery had 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting.
“They played as good as we’ve seen them play since the Brandon situation,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “They came out — they were hitting on all cylinders.”
And they didn’t stop.
A 45-38 lead at halftime was stretched to 56-40 less than four minutes into the second half. Gonzaga (25-10) cut the deficit to eight with 12 minutes remaining, forcing Rose into a timeout and causing the pro-BYU crowd some anxious moments.
But Emery hit another shot after the timeout, and the Cougars scored the next 12 points to put it out of reach. An intense, competitive game that featured four ties and nine lead changes in the first half was suddenly a laugher.
“We might have been as good as we’ve been all year,” Rose said, adding: “This is the best game that we’ve played, you know, since we kind of adjusted offensively [to the loss of Davies]. This is a special team.”
One that, on this night, provided its fans with a special moment and showed that there just might be a few more to come.
R Key Moment • Noah Hartsock and Jackson Emery make their first shots — 3-pointers — and combine for 29 points to share the scoring load with Jimmer Fredette.
Key Stat • BYU makes 14 3-pointers, one shy of a school record.
P No. 3 BYU (32-4) vs. No. 2 Florida (28-7)
At New Orleans Arena
Thursday, time TBA