Las Vegas • BYU has done nothing in its recent conference tournament basketball history to suggest that it can upset No. 6 Gonzaga in Tuesday night’s West Coast Conference championship game.
The third-seeded Cougars, who improved to 24-9 with Monday night’s stirring 85-72 upset of Saint Mary’s, haven’t won a conference tournament title since 2001 — four years before Dave Rose replaced Steve Cleveland as coach.
But a theme quickly emerged late Monday night after the Cougars advanced to their first championship game since 2015, when they lost 91-75 to Kyle Wiltjer-led GU.
The Cougars believe in themselves.
“Our guys know that we are capable of beating anybody,” Rose said. “We really believe that. We played well at times against really good teams over the course of the season. … I thought we played some really tough league games where we executed just tremendously.”
Gonzaga (29-4) will have a huge home-crowd advantage in the 7 p.m. MST tipoff at Orleans Arena. Zags fans gobble up the majority of tickets the first day they go on sale, and some have been known to purchase season tickets to other WCC teams’ games just so they can get priority purchasing for the WCC tournament games.
It will be Gonzaga’s 21st straight appearance in the WCC championship game, and the Zags have won the title in each of the past five seasons. They walloped Saint Mary’s 74-56 in last year’s final and played almost flawlessly in Monday’s 88-60 rout of San Francisco in the early semifinal.
Golfers know it is extremely difficult to follow a great round of golf with another. Does the same apply in basketball? The Cougars almost were perfect as well in their revenge-filled win over the Gaels, shooting 61 percent from the floor and committing just six turnovers.
“I think the biggest thing was to get the guys to believe” that the team is built to win this tournament, Rose said. “The energy we played with in the second half, I am just proud of our guys because I think they really believe it. And we have a tough challenge [Tuesday]. … But that was a really satisfying win for our guys.”
Kenpom.com gives BYU a 22 percent chance of winning, and Gonzaga is favored by 9-10 points.
Gonzaga rolled past BYU 79-65 on Feb. 24 at the Marriott Center, but the Cougars were competitive in the first half and were within two in the final minute of the half before Josh Perkins sank a long 3-pointer. At Spokane, Gonzaga broke from a tie game in the final three minutes to win 68-60 to snap BYU’s three-game winning streak at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“Like coach said, we feel like we are built to win these kinds of tournaments,” said BYU big man Yoeli Childs, who had a career-high 33 points in Monday’s win that snapped SMC’s five-game winning streak against the Cougars. “And I mean, every single person on our team wouldn’t want to play anyone else [but Gonzaga]. They are a great team and we are looking forward to the competition. But I think we are ready. I think everyone believes in each other. We believe in the coaching staff. They are going to have a great plan for us, like they did tonight. They are going to believe in us. It is all about trusting each other and playing together and getting the job done.”
Gonzaga will be the more rested team, having played in Monday’s early game. And coach Mark Few was able to play a lot of guys because GU led 48-27 at halftime and coasted in the second half. Nobody played more than 27 minutes.
Conversely, Childs, Elijah Bryant (25 points) and TJ Haws (11 points) played 119 of a possible 120 minutes for BYU. Dalton Nixon gave BYU a lift off the bench with 10 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes.
BYU’s bench was outscored 22-0 in the loss to the Zags at The Kennel.
“We all got together and really just wanted to pull it out for each other and for the coaching staff and for everybody who has been working hard all season,” Nixon said. “We found that little extra juice to get us there.”