Spokane, Wash. • Brigham Young University’s dream of winning at least a share of the West Coast Conference title in its inaugural season in the league was buried Thursday night like a bone in a bulldog’s backyard.
Its hopes for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid might have been deep-sixed as well in its first-ever visit to where a lot of dreams come to die, Gonzaga’s cozy-but-raucous McCarthey Athletic Center, aka The Kennel.
Taking advantage of a huge disparity at the free-throw line and BYU’s rudder-less play without leading scorer Noah Hartsock — except for seven first-half minutes — Gonzaga screeched its way to a 74-63 win in front of a sellout crowd of 6,000 and a national television audience on ESPN2.
Knowing that his team outrebounded Gonzaga 46-41, forced 20 turnovers and made eight more field goals, “I would have thought the outcome would have been a little bit different,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “And that’s what I told our guys [in the locker room]. We played hard enough to win this game. We just need to play better.”
The Cougars fell to 23-7, 11-4 in the WCC, with the loss. Gonzaga improved to 22-5 and 12-3 and got a measure of revenge for the 83-73 beating it took at BYU three weeks ago.
It was actually a dog of a game, filled with parades to the free-throw line, unforced turnovers and long scoring droughts.
The Zags put away the long-awaited showdown of the teams tied for second place in the WCC early in the second half, putting together a 11-4 run in the first seven minutes after the break to make it appear that the final 13 minutes would be nothing more than an excuse for viewers of the late-night special to head to bed.
The Cougars battled back behind the play of Brandon Davies, however, and cut the lead to seven twice in the final five minutes. He finished with 23 points to lead all scorers, and 10 rebounds, but an alley-oop slam dunk by GU’s Elias Harris with 2:06 remaining made it 63-52 and pretty much ended the Cougars’ comeback bid. Harris had 19 points and 16 boards.
“Our effort was there,” Davies said. “But you can’t just win off effort. You have to make some shots.”
BYU shot just 30.8 percent from the field. Gonzaga wasn’t much better, shooting 39 percent, but the Zags used a 36-9 advantage in made free throws — they attempted a whopping 44 — to overcome the off shooting night in their own barn and the 20 giveaways.
The Cougars’ shot selection in the first half was especially suspect, and too much one-on-one play resulted in many empty possessions. The trailed 37-27 at the break.
After straining his left knee in a scary fall at Santa Clara last week, Hartsock started for the Cougars and wore a black brace on the injured leg but did not attempt a shot in the entire first half. He had just one rebound in seven minutes. He did not play in the second half.
Rose said the Cougars figured out how to play without their star midway through the second half, but by then it was too late to recover.
“We finally found ourselves in that second half. Things were not going well, we missed quite a few free throws, there was separation in the score,” Rose said. “And then we were able to kind of find ourselves. ... That’s a tough thing to try to find in the middle of a really big game.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said it was a “great win against an NCAA Tournament team” for the Bulldogs.
“That was probably as physical as it has been all year for us,” he said.
For the box score, go to: http://sltrib.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/ncaab-preview.aspx?page=/data/NCAAB/matchups/g6_preview_118.html
Storylines Gonzaga 74, BYU 63
R In short • Ice-cold BYU falls at Gonzaga in front of a sellout crowd and national television audience.
Key moment • BYU’s leading scorer, Noah Hartsock, plays just seven minutes on a strained left knee and doesn’t score.
Key Stat • BYU shoots 6 of 28 from 3-point range