Provo • The BYU men’s basketball team has shown the past few years that it can beat West Coast Conference kingpin Gonzaga at the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, regardless of the Zags’ superiority and lofty national ranking.
But can the Cougars do it in front of 18,000 or so at the Marriott Center when there is nothing on the line for them?
Saturday’s regular-season finale will tell the tale.
The Cougars won’t be celebrating their traditional Senior Night because they have no seniors on the roster, and they are locked into the third seed for the conference tournament.
But the Bulldogs have plenty of incentive. Sixth-ranked Gonzaga (26-4, 16-1 WCC) can win the league title outright with another victory in Provo, where it hasn’t lost since 2014.
BYU (22-8, 11-6) is playing only for pride and a confidence boost going into the tournament in Las Vegas, which it will have to win to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.
Sophomore forward Dalton Nixon said that’s plenty of motivation after scoring 14 points off the bench in the 72-60 win over Portland late Thursday night. Besides, it is Gonzaga, one of the rare chances for BYU to make any sort of splash on the national scene.
“We are really excited about this win tonight,” Nixon told the BYU Sports Network. “It gives us some confidence going into the Gonzaga game, which is huge for us, with a lot of emotion [involved]. … It is going to be a lot of fun. I hope Cougar Nation shows up and we can get a W.”
The Zags struggled with the San Diego team that buried BYU 75-62 last Saturday at Jenny Craig Pavilion before pulling out a 77-72 win. They have won 10 straight since falling at home to Saint Mary’s on Jan. 18.
“A lot of people wrote us off to win the league after we dropped that early one at home to Saint Mary’s,” GU coach Mark Few told the Spokesman-Review. “So I had to ask the players, ‘How bad do you want it?’ … Now we just have to finish it off in Provo.”
Gonzaga is a No. 4 seed in ESPN’s latest projections for the NCAA Tournament, but a loss at BYU, which is No. 72 in Ken Pomeroy’s latest power ratings, could be damaging.
A positive sign for BYU on Thursday was the play of its bench, which didn’t score in the eight-point loss to the Zags on Feb. 3. Reserves Nixon, Zac Seljaas and McKay Cannon combined for 22 points on a night where Payton Dastrup didn’t get off the bench for reasons Rose did not specify in his postgame radio interview.
“This is a really competitive group with a ton of heart and a ton of character. They kinda get bashed around a bit by a lot of people as far as what the team has done,” Rose said. “This is a really tough, hard-nosed group of guys that are giving it all they have.”
Sophomore guard TJ Haws lit up the Bulldogs for 26 points at The Kennel, but he could be hampered by a sprained ankle. He twisted it while driving to the hoop late in the game against Portland and hobbled off the court, although he returned to hit a big 3-pointer and finished with 10 points and four assists.
“We will see how it responds,” Rose said about the injury. “He is a really tough kid, and he wanted to get back in there and help his team win. So we taped that thing up and hopefully it will stay where it doesn’t swell too bad and we will get him back out there on Saturday.”
NO. 6 GONZAGA AT BYU
At the Marriott Center, Provo
Tipoff • 6 p.m. Saturday
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius XM 143
Records • BYU 22-8, 11-6; Gonzaga 26-4, 16-1
Series history • Gonzaga leads 13-6
Last meeting • Gonzaga won 68-60 (Feb. 3)
About the Bulldogs • They have clinched at least a share of the WCC regular-season championship and can win it outright with a victory at the Marriott Center. … F Johnathan Williams averages 13.5 points and 8.1 rebounds, while G Josh Perkins averages 12.9 points and 3.1 rebounds. …They are averaging 85 points per game and holding opponents to 67.8 ppg.
About the Cougars • They clinched the third seed in the West Coast Conference tournament with Thursday’s 72-60 win at Portland and have finished third or better every year they’ve been in the WCC. … Elijah Bryant had 15 points and six rebounds in the win and has hit a 3-pointer in 29 of 30 games this season. … Dalton Nixon is averaging 8.8 points per game in his last five games, all coming off the bench.