It was a tall order and was always going to be a hard test, but BYU never backed off. In fact, after having their third straight conference game postponed, the Cougars took matters into their own hands and found an opponent in No. 1 Gonzaga.
The result: BYU — finally — opened West Coast Conference play with a 86-69 loss to the Bulldogs in Spokane, Wash., on Thursday night. The Cougars dropped to 9-3 on the season, and Gonzaga remained perfect for a 11-0 record.
The Cougars prepared for the game on 48 hour’s notice after not having played for two weeks; Gonzaga, on different occasions this season, has been compared to an NFL-caliber team.
The deck was stacked against BYU from the start, but BYU coach Pope has no regrets about getting this game on the schedule seemingly last minute. They may have lost, but there’s plenty to learn from and take away from the game.
“I’m really excited about getting this out of the way, the first game of the conference, because it just shows us clearly and glaringly some areas where we have to get massively better,” Pope said. “And you like that. As this team, you like it because it gives you a benchmark that’s real and tangible that you can shoot for and work towards every day and talk about it. And I have a locker room full of guys that will do that.”
With a team like Gonzaga, opponents can’t afford to turnover the ball. And that’s exactly what plagued BYU at the start of the game.
The Cougars gave up five turnovers while being held to 1 of 4 shooting four minutes into the game. The shooting and defensive struggles continued, as BYU trailed 30-7 midway through the first half.
So far this season, the Cougars average giving up 27 points at the half. The Bulldogs nearly doubled that by halftime.
“I did a poor job getting our energy up to start the game,” Pope said. “I’m not exactly sure why — we’re trying to figure that out right now. It wasn’t that our guys weren’t excited to play, but it was just the moment, for this group, was just too big for us to start.”
The early hole the Cougars dug themselves in proved to be too much to handle, but there were still some bright spots to take away from it.
Although BYU lost the turnover game (16-8), it won the battle off the glass, outrebounding Gonzaga 38-36. The Cougars also kept the Bulldogs under 50% shooting from the field — a rarity for them.
Even though Gonzaga opened on a 23-2 run and led by as many as 32 points in the second half, BYU continued trying to catch up. The Cougars cut the deficit to 13 four minutes before halftime and were able to mount an 8-0 run in the second half before losing by 17.
The bench was key in finding the offensive rhythm, especially after senior Alex Barcello, who came into the game averaging 16.9 points, was held to just nine points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field. The reserves accounted for 39 points.
Of the four BYU players to score in the double digits, only one was a starter — Matt Haarms (13 points). From the bench, Caleb Lohner tied for a team-high 13 points, while Richard Harward added 12 and Gideon George scored 11 points.
The Cougars will now get ready for another two road games next week. BYU will play at Saint Mary’s on Thursday and San Francisco Jan. 16, barring any more COVID-19 related postponements.
Pope will hope to build off the Gonzaga loss to improve throughout the remainder of the league schedule.
“In no point of the game did they walk away,” Pope said. “That is not consolation for losing — that is actually the DNA of a team that has a chance to be really, really good. In a really, really tough night where we really didn’t start out well against the best team in the country, and for the guys to stay in and stay locked in, really almost to a man for the entire game, trying to compete and trying to get better — that’s who we are and that’s what we have to do and we will.”