Provo • “Sheer insanity.”
Those were the now-famous descriptive words of Mark Pope in regard to the BYU-Gonzaga game, played on Saturday night in front of a loud, sold-out crowd at the Marriott Center.
And so, it was, with the home team finding itself on the jubilant end of a 91-78 count in a match that could in the aftermath be described as … wild and wicked. Yoeli Childs style.
“That was unbelievable,” Childs said, “just the fight that we had.”
He added: “This team has such big goals.”
You could see it coming, or at least consider it a possibility, without stretching the imagination to the point of snapping completely away from reality.
The Cougars had something important to prove in this game, if not to anybody else, at least to themselves. Actually, include anybody else in the equation of proof, too.
“It shows that we can learn and we can grow,” Jake Toolson said. “We’re not satisfied. We battled and we laid it on the line. Tonight shows us that we can win against the best teams in the country.”
It’s widely known that Gonzaga sits atop the West Coast Conference the way Genghis Khan sat on the Mongol Empire. “We respect them,” said Childs. The Zags may not be the WCC, but they are as close to that whole as any team in any league in the country. They rule and own it. And little insurgents like BYU and Saint Mary’s, without completely shaming themselves, continue to look up at the castle in the kingdom, with those farfetched dreams of their own domination.
One game in Provo was never going to 100-percent flip that arrangement, the Cougars having sporadically beaten the Bulldogs in the past, as well. It’s just that, on this occasion, BYU had shown itself as something beyond what it normally is. The Cougars coming in had not only won seven straight games, something they had never done in WCC play, they seemed to have the talent necessary not just to beat the Zags in a kind of one-off upset, but to at least indicate movement toward challenging them for league superiority.
Zags coach Mark Few was convinced, at a minimum in the moment.
“We got out-toughed in every phase of the game tonight,” he said. “… They came after us with their offense. They came after us with their defense, physically taking the ball away from us. We didn’t deserve to win.”
What made that even more astounding was that Gonzaga was the second-ranked team in the nation. BYU, then, with its 23rd ranking, was taking on more than a bully in an obscure church league out west somewhere, it was facing down what might be the best team in all of college basketball.
“You could be in this business for 50 years and not get this night,” Pope said.
He’d take it.
On attack, the Cougars unsheathed their shooting prowess, having used accuracy and efficiency in their streak of wins in the run up, typically shooting better than 50 percent from the field and reinforcing themselves as the land’s leader in field-goal percentage from deep. They went on stopping and popping, making 53 percent against Gonzaga.
When the Bulldogs crowded them around the arc, BYU took the ball inside to Childs, who scored 28 points and pulled 10 rebounds, or depended on TJ Haws to drive the ball into the paint for points or passes that led to points. Others, such as Toolson (17 points), were effective in either firing off their bombs or finding openings in the midrange.
At the defensive end, the Cougars attempted to follow Pope’s directive for each of them to stay between the individual Zags and the basket. They complied just enough to disrupt the Bulldogs’ intentions.
With each basket made, with each defensive stand taken, the jammed Marriott Center rocked and rolled, nearly everyone on hand remembering in a painful sort of way what Gonzaga had done to the Cougars on its home court a month ago, namely punished them.
This was payback, but it was more than just that. It was an announcement, in conjunction with a bunch of other wins, that BYU, under Pope, its first-year head coach, had intentions of its own — for the present and for the future.
That sounds melodramatic, and maybe it is. Even with the loss, Gonzaga remains in first place. Kings they remain. But the Cougars have grown weary of playing second fiddle in the WCC. They were hesitant, especially the seniors, in the postgame to make a load of brash declarative statements about what this pivot meant for the seasons to come.
The Zags’ run of success deserves its share of respect.
Childs emphasized the point.
But getting shoved around by a darling-turned-destroyer like Gonzaga, BYU led now by a new Pope with a new hope, absorbing and accepting that ongoing shoving appeared to be at a crossroads, if not an absolute end.
BYU will be going to the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in the conference tournament, but Saturday night’s announcement indicated that the Cougars have intentions of shaking up the Empire, and maybe even winning the WCC tournament, something else they have never done before.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.