Provo • Because they have lost five straight times to Gonzaga, the BYU Cougars aren’t exactly experts when it comes to knowing how to topple the West Coast Conference’s dominant basketball program.
But coach Dave Rose’s players believe they learned something last Saturday during their 60-57 win at Saint Mary’s that will help them Thursday in the 9 p.m. showdown at the Marriott Center.
“We’ve got to be free and loose, and not get too tight,” big man Nate Austin said.
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said that’s what happened to his team in the second half, even going so far as to suggest the Gaels choked. The Cougars are vowing not to fall into the same trap in what is arguably their biggest regular-season game of the year.
“We don’t have any pressure on us,” Tyler Haws said, when asked about the Cougars’ mindset. “We are just going out there trying to win a basketball game. We love playing in front of our home crowd. I think our guys feed off the energy and we are a lot more comfortable at home. So I am not worried about it.”
Close to 20,000 fans are expected, although ESPN2 moving the game back two hours on a weeknight will certainly keep a lot of people away.
Coach Dave Rose said the Cougars (18-10, 10-5 WCC) realize the importance of the game, not only on a national scale to regain some respect, but also to stay in the hunt for a piece of the WCC regular-season title. The No. 25 Zags (23-4, 13-1) have already clinched a share of the crown and can wrap it up outright with a win.
Gonzaga has lost one league game — at Portland 82-73 on Jan. 9 — the last two seasons.
“Our guys mentally and emotionally really want the win,” Rose said. “We will have to see how they respond physically, that’s the deal.
“Sometimes your guys are way too high emotionally and they have a hard time settling into the game. But I like the resiliency of our team. I like the resolve of our group. There are times when I would like us to execute a whole lot better. Hopefully what we see tomorrow is a team that has got real energy, and real urgency, and their execution is really good.”
At least, the Cougars will be close to full strength, and totally rested, in their rematch with Gonzaga after getting blown out 84-69 in Spokane on Jan. 25, two nights after losing in triple overtime at Portland.
Point guard Kyle Collinsworth took a hard fall against Saint Mary’s and suffered a deep bone bruise. He practiced on it Wednesday, going full-tilt for the first time this week, and said he’s “probably 90 percent” healthy. “It feels good. Good enough to play. That’s all that counts.”
Backup center Luke Worthington suffered a shoulder sprain against the Gaels but has practiced this week and is expected to play.
To a man, the Cougars said limiting the Zags’ 3-point shooting will be a huge key to the game. Kevin Pangos went 6-for-10 from beyond the arc and the Zags were 10-for-22 overall from there in the big win at McCarthey Center last month.
“When we don’t let teams shoot 3s, we win. It is that simple,” Collinsworth said. “So it is huge for us, and Gonzaga has … at least three really good shooters. … We can’t let them get a lot of attempts, because they will make them.”
Haws said containing Pangos and David Stockton, who had 14 points in the first game, will take a team effort.
BYU vs. Saint Mary’s
O Provo, Marriott Center
Tipoff • 9 p.m. MT
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 18-10 (10-5 WCC); Gonzaga 23-4 (13-1)
Series history • Gonzaga leads 6-2
Last meeting • Gonzaga 84, BYU 69 (Jan. 25)
About the Bulldogs • Own a four-game lead in WCC regular-season title chase. … Kevin Pangos, a Cousy Award finalist (best point guard) leads them in scoring with a 15.4 average. …. F Sam Dower is averaging 14.8 ppg, second best on the team. They hold opponents to 65.8 points per game and score 78.4 ppg.
About the Cougars • Tyler Haws is first in the WCC and fourth in the country in scoring with a 24.1 average and needs just 22 points to move into seventh on BYU’s all-time scoring list. … They are 12-1 at the Marriott Center this season and have won nine straight at home … Nate Austin has had double digits in rebounds nine times this season.