Provo • Leading scorer Elijah Bryant goes 1 of 11 for a season-low four points. The Cougars make just 3 of 20 3-point shots, give up 11 offensive rebounds and get to the free-throw line only nine times.
That sounds like a recipe for disaster, an epic beatdown, on the floor of the No. 14 team in the country, right?
Well, it wasn’t.
Despite one of its worst offensive performances of the season, BYU hung with last year’s NCAA Tournament runnerup before faltering in crunch time and losing 68-60 to Gonzaga in front of 6,000 fans at McCarthey Athletic Center late Saturday night.
The Cougars’ improbable bid to beat the Zags for the fourth straight time in Spokane came up just short, but in defeat they somehow recaptured the confidence that carried them to 18 wins in their first 23 games.
“There were a couple stretches there late when we weren’t ourselves and we turned the ball over,” said junior forward Luke Worthington. “If we clean that stuff up, I have no doubt in my mind that we will beat them at our place.”
That game is Feb. 24 at the Marriott Center on what would be Senior Night if coach Dave Rose’s team included, you know, actual seniors.
After the Cougars went 5 of 24 from 3-point range in that humbling 76-69 loss to lowly Loyola Marymount on Thursday in Los Angeles, seemingly a low point in the season, they turned to their improved defense to keep from getting routed by the revenge-minded Bulldogs.
BYU held Gonzaga to 43.5 percent shooting, but the Zags’ superior depth was the difference. Led by Rui Hachimura’s 15 points, the home team’s bench outscored BYU’s bench 22-0, as the Cougars got a goose egg from Zac Seljaas, Payton Dastrup, McKay Cannon and Dalton Nixon in 24 combined minutes.
“The last three or four games the physical nature of the game, the battle, was won by the opposing team,” Rose said. “So, the key for us was to get back to where we felt like we were competing physically at least even with the other team, if not better.”
That happened. The Cougars were not overwhelmed by the Zags or their raucous crowd.
Starting the 6-foot-10 Worthington in the place of the 6-7 Seljaas was designed to give the Cougars a bigger physical presence defensively, and it did. But it was also surprisingly effective offensively, as Worthington had a career-high 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
The Zags took away Bryant, who took a shot to the shin early in the game, but it came at a cost.
“I thought Luke was really, really good tonight,” Rose said.
Bryant had a couple of 3-point attempts go in and out, as did TJ Haws.
“If we had made a few more 3s, it probably would have been a different story,” said Rose, who also fumed over some non-calls in the final two minutes. The coach thought Haws and Yoeli Childs were bumped while shooting on the same possession with just over a minute remaining and BYU trailing by four.
He also thought Hachimura got away with a double-dribble violation before he was purposely fouled with 29 seconds left and sank two free throws to seal the Zags’ 21st win.
“We need to play better and they need to ref better, Rose said in his postgame radio interview with the BYU Sports Network.
Their hopes for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid dashed with the two-loss road trip, the Cougars return home Thursday to take on Santa Clara at 9 p.m. MST at the Marriott Center. The game will be televised by ESPNU.
“Like coach [Rose] said in the locker room, we are completely different than we were 48 hours ago,” said Childs. “I am just proud of the way our guys battled back, and I am excited for what this team can do.”
Santa Clara at BYU
At the Marriott Center
Tipoff • 9 p.m. Thursday
TV • ESPNU