Kragthorpe: BYU basketball team is unable to stay in Gonzaga's realm for very long

Cougars’ bid to upset the No. 6 Bulldogs ends after a half<br>

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. (23) battles for a loose ball with BYU guard Elijah Bryant (3) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Provo, Utah.


This is how close BYU came to completing a rally from 14 points behind against No. 6 Gonzaga: Cougar guard Elijah Bryant launched a 3-point attempt that could have given his team the lead and thrilled the home crowd Saturday night, but the shot spun in and out of the basket with 1:01 remaining.

In the first half.

And that’s as good as it would get for BYU in a 79-65 loss in front of 18,897 fans at the sold-out Marriott Center.

Blowing a late lead in regulation and losing to Saint Mary’s in overtime in December actually topped Saturday’s achievement in coming close. The direction of this discussion is the problem in itself, though. BYU really has nothing to show for the West Coast Conference regular season, other than having precisely met expectations as the WCC’s third-place pick.

BYU beat Gonzaga once in each of the previous four seasons, but that didn’t happen in 2017-18 — with a remote possibility of one more opportunity for the Cougars in the WCC tournament championship game.

Whether the bigger problem is not being able to beat Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s or losing to other teams and finishing so far behind the WCC’s top two schools, this ranks as BYU’s most disappointing effort in seven years of conference membership. That’s mathematically true, anyway. The Cougars went 11-7 in WCC play; the 2012-13 team finished 10-6, which is worse by percentage points (that team also was swept by both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga).

BYU associate head coach Tim LaComb brought up the third-place forecast in the postgame interview, while filling in for coach Dave Rose, who left the arena soon after the final buzzer due to illness. LaComb’s response suggested the team’s finish is reasonable, while he acknowledged “nights when you just wish you could have played better.”

Asked what separates the Cougars from Gonzaga and SMC, Bryant said, “We’re just as good as them.” Any evidence for his argument came only in spurts Saturday. Bryant and TJ Haws played brilliantly during a 16-6 run that cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 40-38, and then Bryant got another great look that could have sent the Cougars ahead.

But he missed, and he turned the ball over on the next possession with another chance to tie or take the lead. This part is amazing: Bryant remained stuck on 13 points until making a free throw with 5:16 remaining in the game. By then, having led 43-38 at halftime, Gonzaga had surged ahead by as many as 21 points.

Those guys are good. Gonzaga (27-4) clinched the WCC’s regular-season championship outright with a 17-1 record, behind six double-figures scorers.

The consolation for BYU is that on a night when the school traditionally honors its seniors, the Cougars had nobody to recognize. The returning players’ challenge will be to improve enough to knock off the WCC’s flagship programs — and beat everybody else, rather than lose three games to lesser team. Maybe the expected return of guard Nick Emery will make just enough difference for a BYU team that lacked depth and balanced scoring.

The immediate question is whether the 2017-18 Cougars will get another shot at Gonzaga, or even Saint Mary’s. BYU is bracketed to meet SMC in the semifinals of the WCC tournament in Las Vegas, with Gonzaga presumably awaiting the winner of that game. With a 22-9 record, BYU can hope only for an NCAA Tournament bid that comes with the WCC tournament title — something the Cougars have never won.

BYU will have a tough enough draw in the quarterfinals. The Cougars will meet No. 6 San Diego, which beat them a week ago and tied for fourth in the conference at 9-9.

Bryant finished with 16 points Saturday, complementing Yoeli Childs’ 19. But the Cougars shot only 29.6 percent from the field in the second half. The issue with Haws, whose six points came in a 26-second span, was that Gonzaga limited him to six shots, after he scored 26 points in a 68-60 loss Feb. 3 in Spokane, Wash.

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