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BYU’s slow start, turnovers pave the way for Cougars’ 82-71 loss to No. 1 Gonzaga

The Cougars hosted the Zags Monday night in rescheduled game as West Coast Conference is plagued by COVID-19.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Gideon George (5) shoots over Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2), in West Coast Conference Basketball action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Provo • Take away the first four minutes, and the game might have had a different result. But that’s not how it goes — it’s a 40 minute contest.

BYU failed to do so, particularly struggling in the opening four minutes as Gonzaga started on a 15-2 run, and the top-ranks Zags ended Monday night’s game with a 82-71 victory in the Marriott Center.

The loss drops the Cougars’ record to 15-5 and 6-3 in West Coast Conference play. The Zags remain undefeated and the top team in the league (19-0; 10-0 WCC).

“We had some things that we didn’t do well and some areas of the game where we really struggled,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “But with the exception of a stretch of four or five minutes, I thought the guys fought really hard and tried to compete. We’ll continue to work hard and get better — that’s the agenda at hand.”

The Cougars’ slow start was partly facilitated by careless errors and turnovers. In the first 10 minutes of the game, BYU gave up nine turnovers. By the end of the game, the Cougars had committed 19 turnovers, which Gonzaga converted into 26 points.

BYU senior guard Alex Barcello said the the Zags are good in the gaps, are athletic, quick and good at reading ball screens. And that’s what helped Gonzaga disrupt the Cougars’ offense, especially early in the game.

“They use that to their advantage,” Barcello said.

Pope said he saw moments in the game when his Cougars were really good and aggressive, but then things would come to a halt. He was also particularly disappointed in the production in the post.

BYU’s bigs were uncharacteristically quiet, only producing two points between Matt Haarms, Kolby Lee and Richard Harward, who shot for a combined 1 of 3 from the field.

The Cougars managed to score 28 points from the paint, but could have seen that stat bolstered by those three.

“We need to be way more physical than our front line — we have to figure that out,” Pope said. “That’s a place we go that we trust, that saves us, that can steady us and it was not an answer for us tonight, and that’s problematic. When we can’t go there and we don’t have the space to occupy, it also makes it more difficult.”

Barcello led the Cougars with 20 points, four rebounds and five assists, but struggled from beyond the arc, only making 1 of 5 3-pointers. BYU made 38% of its long shots, about par for the season, but could have benefitted greatly from making more of them.

“I thought I saw some flashes of positivity and some things where I was like, ‘man, we’re not even close,’” Pope said. “That’s what great teams do to you. It’s a good marker for us to get better, and we have to get better.”

The Cougars now have a 10-day break until their next game — at Pacific, Feb. 18. BYU’s originally-scheduled games against Saint Mary’s on Thursday and San Diego on Saturday were postponed because of COVID-19 related issues in the Gaels’ and Toreros’ programs.

The WCC has been plagued by the pandemic. At one point recently, six of the league’s 10 teams were on pause due to COVID-19. All of Thursday’s game are either postponed or canceled, as are two of Saturday’s five games.

Pope said his staff had already started putting in some leg work in finding a team to play before Pacific, and will “hit the phones hard in the morning” to try to find an opponent that fits.

“It’s just super unprecedented,” Pope said. “And down now on the stretch run of this season, it’s actually finding games, finding the right games and finding the games at the right for your team [that] is super important right now. We’ll jump on that and I’m not sure where we’ll end up. Hopefully we find a game that fits us really, really well.”

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