Kragthorpe: BYU is out of Gonzaga’s league in WCC title game

The BYU bench watches during the final minutes of the second half of the West Coast Conference tournament championship NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Las Vegas. Gonzaga defeated BYU 74-54. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Las Vegas • BYU guard TJ Haws’ jump shot midway through the second half gave teammates Yoeli Childs and Elijah Bryant some scoring help and stopped Gonzaga’s surge.

But the Cougars needed a lot more of that stuff, and much sooner.

BYU’s 74-54 loss in Tuesday night’s championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament at Orleans Arena became a case of the Cougars’ advancing too far for their own good. Gonzaga (30-4) took all of the mystery out of this thing with a 36-4 run spanning halftime, doing what the Zags usually do in winning their sixth straight tournament title.

The question of the week, as the Cougars (24-10) await another NIT bid, is how much their performance in the title game diminished what they did to get there. BYU’s semifinal win over Saint Mary’s altered my perception of the program, and nothing the Cougars did Tuesday could undo all of that.

Some of it, though? Absolutely.

BYU’s self-image was healthy after the semis. Less than 24 hours later, the outlook was partially clouded by all of the red and blue confetti in the air.

We’re going to go home a little disappointed,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “But there’s no question this team has improved. We’re on a trajectory to where we’re going to get better and better … and compete for championships in this league.”

Rose could make that statement, backed by a roster filled with returning players. With better health and the presumed return of guard Nick Emery, the Cougars should be an NCAA Tournament team in 2019. As of Tuesday, though, they were the latest example of people who should have stopped when they were ahead in Las Vegas.

To their credit, they didn’t quit when hopelessly behind, but the damage was done when they trailed 63-31, a score remarkably similar to a checkpoint in last year’s semifinal loss to Saint Mary’s, the game the Cougars thought they had exorcised Monday.

Whether he was speaking wryly or not, this clearly is not what Rose had in mind when he mentioned the “reward” of meeting the Zags.

In praising the Cougars’ performance against Saint Mary’s, I cautioned, “The remaining variable in this tournament is a lot could go wrong for BYU, facing Gonzaga …”

So I got that one right. Knocking off the Gaels and the Zags on consecutive nights was an unreasonable expectation.

Another recent declaration: “If Gonzaga moves from the West Coast Conference to the Mountain West, the Cougars must follow.”

Sure about that? Actually, yes.

Imagine this event without the aura of the Zags and their remarkable following that accounted for most of the crowd of 8,030. Regardless of what Tuesday’s outcome suggested, BYU should do almost whatever it takes to stay in Gonzaga’s conference.

That’s a complex discussion for another day, possibly involving the future of BYU football. The immediate issue is what the Cougars have to do in an effort to compete more favorably with Gonzaga — in Provo and Las Vegas, anyway.

BYU’s defeat of Saint Mary’s required the very best of Childs and Bryant, plus help from other sources, notably Haws and Dalton Nixon. In Tuesday’s case, the other Cougars totaled four points in the first 29 minutes.

As of halftime, Childs had scored 22, 33 and 20 points in three games. He made the all-tournament team, even after adding only two points in 14 minutes of second-half play. Bryant was nudged out of the honors, having scored 27, 25 and 11 points.

Utah could have helped BYU by signing forward Killian Tillie, the tournament MVP, instead of losing him to Gonzaga. A brother of a former Ute, Tillie posted 22 points, giving him 72 in three games via 28-of-36 shooting. He also had plenty of help, as the Zags continued to model what BYU someday hopes to become.

That’s assuming the Cougars remain in the same conference with Gonzaga. As of Tuesday, though, the Zags were in another league.

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