Provo • Saturday night was almost prophetic.
But the fortunes of BYU weren’t told by a crystal ball or tarot cards, they were foretold by coach Mark Pope himself. Well, kind of.
Before the basketball season even started, Pope used Midnight Madness to get fans ready for what he expected this season. In his scenario, it was the West Coast Conference championship game. As soon as he finished detailing a play-by-play of the final seconds (and declared BYU the winner), students cleared out of their seats to rush the court in the Marriott Center.
“It’s actually really humbling because it just doesn’t work like this a lot, but it worked like this for this crew,” Pope said. “I hope that all 18,000 of us in there and everyone watching on TV got to see something they’ll never forget because it’s one of those really special moments in sports — and not going to be our last. But man, it’s really special. I’m happy for these guys.”
Pope is a big fan of speaking things into existence, and wanted to let fans practice storming the court.
It wasn’t the WCC championship, but it was arguably the biggest game in the Marriott Center in nearly a decade. No. 23 BYU took down No. 2 Gonzaga 91-78 in front of a sellout crowd (official attendance was 18,987) in the final home game of the season.
The win should certainly bump the Cougars up even higher on the AP Poll.
“It's a storybook,” Pope said. “There's a lot of storybook stuff so far this season. Sometimes you try to speak things into existence and most of the time it doesn't work and every once in a while it does and those moments are great.”
Besides the fact that it was the Cougars’ eighth straight win, which is their longest winning streak this season and their longest regular-season streak in conference play since joining the WCC, it snapped a few Gonzaga streaks.
Before Saturday, the Zags had won their past 40 regular-season conference games and 34 straight regular-season conference road games. Gonzaga also came to Provo having won the past 19 games of this season.
Now, the Bulldogs will have to start their streaks all over again. Meanwhile, Pope isn’t quite sure what a win of this caliber means for the future of the program, but does know its importance for the team right now, as the Cougars prepare to end the regular season.
Gonzaga has already clinched the top seed in the WCC tournament, but still needs one win in its final two home games to secure the outright regular-season championship. BYU (23-7, 12-3 WCC) can lock down the No. 2 seed (and earn a triple-bye in Vegas) with a win at Pepperdine next Saturday or if Saint Mary’s loses one of its last two games.
“We've got to live in every moment,” Pope said. “My whole life right now is in these guys right now. So, I don't know about program trajectory. I just know that you can be in this business for 50 years and not get that night, with all the lead-up that was into it … you could do that and never get this night, and these guys got it. I don't know about any broader picture thing, but it makes me happy.”
BYU also got back to being a shooting machine against Gonzaga. After shooting over 50% in nine straight games, the Cougars struggled with getting shots to fall in the previous two games.
On Thursday against Santa Clara, BYU's biggest shooting struggle came from the perimeter.
Although the Cougars are the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the nation, BYU went 3 of 13 from the arc. The three made 3-pointers and 13 3-point attempts were both season lows for the Cougars.
On Saturday, the Cougars missed their first six long attempts but finished the game 11 of 27 from the arc. In the second half alone, BYU shot 5 of 8 from the 3-point line.
Gonzaga, however, only made 5 of 25 of its 3-point attempts.
Three seniors led the Cougars over the last week. Yoeli Childs posted two double-doubles against Santa Clara and Gonzaga, totaling 50 points and 21 rebounds. TJ Haws had 44 points, 17 assists and six rebounds over the week, and Jake Toolson scored 37 points, brought down 13 rebounds and dished out six assists.
Toolson said the way the Cougars played against Gonzaga proves that they can continue to learn and grow. And they're not satisfied. They will continue to get better.
“I think we battled tonight and we really laid it all on the line,” Toolson said. “The message is pretty consistent among all the guys on the team, it’s just that we want to fight for each other. We’ve got a lot of seniors on this team — it’s their last run at this. So, we want to do everything we can to win. I think tonight just shows us that we can play, we can win. When we’re playing together and we’re fighting for each other, we can win against the best teams in the country. I think that’s going to give us a lot of confidence going forward.”