When BYU and Gonzaga took the court here late Thursday night, the friendly confines pulsated in a way that belied what was actually at stake, at least from a technical standpoint. You would have thought it was something — maybe a league championship or a bid to the NCAA Tournament or the breath of life — bigger than appearances or pride.
But that’s all there was.
And it went both ways — for far different reasons.
In front of a raucous Marriott Center crowd, bodies flew all over the court, defensive effort was high, energy was even higher. As is the case in almost every big game, both the care factor and the ugly factor were through the roof. This thing had the feel of a bloody title fight.
All in the name of symbolism.
And, in the name of everything symbolic, Gonzaga went ahead and beat BYU, 70-65.
On the one hand, the Cougars were done with the chase in the West Coast Conference, having absorbed too many league losses for any chance at a title. A lot of people believed they had no shot at March Madness, either, short of winning the WCC tourney next week. What they could restore was noble, if not overly significant numerically: a better feeling about a down season, accomplished by beating a formidable foe.
On the other hand, the Bulldogs were already in the NCAA Tournament, and they were going to win the WCC regular-season championship, regardless of what happened here. What was left for them was less tangible and clinical, but perhaps a lot more meaningful: a No. 1 ranking in the national polls, something Gonzaga had never before achieved, and a strong link to a potential top seed at the Dance.
Appearances, pride, symbolism … and positioning, then.
The Zags had more to play for, as well as more talent, but they battled for this win.
Credit the Cougars for a strong effort. They worked hard to salvage a small piece of their season, to pull off a huge upset. Neither team shot the ball well, and hard physicality replaced the comely stuff.
The last time these two teams played, the Cougars got embarrassed by the Dogs in Spokane. They were never in that game, shooting and passing the ball as though it were a hot keg of nitro. Gonzaga out-shot them by nearly 20 percentage points that night.
Even on their considerably more comfortable home floor here, with that large, loud crowd behind them, the Cougars suffered through some of the same troubles this time. No shock. If BYU could lose at home to Saint Mary’s and San Francisco, what would stop the team on the verge of laying claim to the top spot in the polls from defeating the Cougars, too?
A whole lot, as it turned out.
Still, not even the curse of being [almost] No. 1 took down the Zags. As volatile as that perch has been for teams this season, nearly two fistfuls of them having been dumped after temporarily taking the highest hill, Gonzaga managed to fight through whatever resistance BYU conjured.
And the Cougars put up a lot of resistance. They had to play rough, because, as mentioned, they’re not as good as the Zags. Their zone defense bothered Gonzaga in a major way. In the first half, the Bulldogs shot just 37 percent. BYU shot 35 percent, including a mere 5 of 11 from the foul line. Halftime score: 35-31, Zags.
In the second half, bit by bit, the visitors scratched their way to a more substantial lead, going up 54-43 midway down the stretch. But the Cougars punched back, making things difficult, keeping it close.
BYU cut the lead to four at the seven-minute mark, and to three on a Brock Zylstra bomb with six minutes left. With five minutes remaining, Craig Cusick chucked up a 3-pointer, making it 60-58. Thereafter, Brandon Davies tied it at 60. And the Marriott went insane.
From there, everything was crazy. Every possession. Every defensive stand.
At the end, the Zags may not have looked like a No. 1 team. Then again, who does these days? But they won, so they likely will be No. 1. And the Cougars? They gained back their self-respect. For them, that should be enough.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.