In a game with nothing to lose, both teams played as if they had everything to lose.
BYU and Gonzaga entered the West Coast Conference championship game, Tuesday in Las Vegas, as two NCAA Tournament-bound teams. But that didn’t mean they’d phone it in.
While the Cougars threatened to dethrone the last remaining undefeated team in the country, the Zags put together a 23-5 run late in the game to seal a 88-78 win and the WCC title.
“We addressed a lot of the concerns we had going into the game,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “Our guys addressed them really well, we just couldn’t quite get it done. It’s super disappointing, but really proud of our team and proud of our guys.”
BYU gave top-seeded Gonzaga its biggest challenge of the season Tuesday night. The Cougars’ game-high lead of 14 points is the largest deficit the Zags had faced all season.
BYU brought the intensity from the start, at one point even shooting a clip of 75% from the field in the first half to head into halftime with a 12-point lead.
The Cougars seemed to have learned a lot from Monday’s overtime semifinal win over Pepperdine, which was a ragged performance that saw BYU turnover the ball 21 times and a combined 49 fouls.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few gave BYU credit for bringing the fight to them and was happy to have his team face some adversity.
“We needed a game like that,” Few said. “We got some adversity and we got punched in the face. We got together at halftime and just got back to sticking with the plan. The guys came out and played fantastic defense in the second half. And obviously our offense got going because of our defense and we were able to get a good win.”
While BYU flipped the script on Tuesday in the first half, Gonzaga was able to adjust and opened the second half on an 11-2 run.
The Cougars had missed just 10 shots in the first 20 minutes, but opened the second half 1 of 6.
After a few minutes of very competitive play, the Zags started pulling away to close out the game. Gonzaga guard Jaren Suggs led with a game-high 23 points on 7 of 15 shooting.
Pope believes the drop off of BYU’s offensive production was a combination of pressure from the Gonzaga defense and the Cougars running out of gas. But he still found something positive to take away; the Cougars finished the game with only eight turnovers — the second least turnovers given up in a single game this season.
“For our team to be an eight turnover team for the course of a game is pretty remarkable,” Pope said.
BYU was led by reserve Trevin Knell, who scored a career-high 20 points. Four other Cougars (Alex Barcello, Matt Haarms, Brandon Averette and Gideon George) also managed to score in the double digits, but it wasn’t enough.
The Cougars, who are expected to be a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament, will now wait until Selection Sunday to see where they land on the brackets.
Gonzaga will be the 16th team ever to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated.
“I hope everybody took notice of how good this BYU team is,” Few said. “They have rim protection in Haarms, they have shooters on the perimeter that are really starting to shoot the ball well and play better, they’ve got excellent ball screen readers and decision makers in Barcello and Averette. That’s a very, very, very good basketball team. They pushed us to the brink tonight and I give them a lot of credit.”