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‘Big test’ awaits BYU men’s basketball in matchup against No. 2 Gonzaga

The Cougars admitted how they play the Bulldogs will say a lot about where their team is at this point of the season.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Trevin Knell (21) tries to shoot around Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Corey Kispert (24), 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 • BYU guard Trevin Knell made a 3-pointer to put the Cougars up by 14 over Gonzaga just before halftime in the West Coast Conference championship game. Knell was a sophomore then, on a night last March when BYU had a puncher’s chance at beating what was then the No. 1 team in the country.

But the Bulldogs went into assassin mode in the second half. They trailed by nine with about nine minutes left in that game. BYU tied it with 4:19 left, but Gonzaga used those remaining minutes to take the life out of the Cougars.

Knell hasn’t forgotten that game. He hasn’t forgotten the feeling of being so close to upsetting the best team in the country only to fall short.

So as the Cougars prepare to face Gonzaga on the road Thursday, there’s a desire for some poetic justice in Knell’s eyes.

“I want them so bad,” Knell said this week.

BYU (14-3, 2-0 WCC) has its biggest test of the season against Gonzaga (12-2, 1-0 WCC), which is ranked No. 2 in the country in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Cougars are on a four-game winning streak, while the Bulldogs have won five straight.

While many teams generally don’t like putting any one game on a pedestal, it’s clear the Cougars are extra amped for this one. They’ve watched hours of film. They’ve put much of their focus on changing their mindset on transition defense because Gonzaga plays fast and scores faster.

So it’s no wonder that, on some level, BYU will look at the matchup against Gonzaga as a way to measure to the state of the 2021-22 team.

“I think it’s a pretty big test for us, especially at this point of the season,” forward Caleb Lohner said. “I think it’s going to be a huge test of kind of where we are mentally as a team and ... our chemistry and how we play together and how we kind of get through some of that adversity.”

Lohner admitted that it’s almost a forgone conclusion that BYU won’t play a perfect game against Gonzaga. There will be moments of frustration. But it’s how the Cougars deal with those low points that could say a lot about how the rest of the season will go.

“Having these games right now I think are going to be a huge statement to help us track in a positive direction the rest of the season,” Lohner said while also including the previous game against Saint Mary’s and the one Saturday against San Francisco.

The last time the Cougars beat the Bulldogs was in the Marriott Center on Feb. 22, 2020, less than a month before the sports world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gonzaga was ranked No. 2 then.

So BYU knows what it takes to beat a top team. Coach Mark Pope said any time a team gets the opportunity go up against the best, it’s always a benchmark game. It just so happens that his team is in the same conference as a team that has competed in the NCAA Tournament for 22 straight seasons other than 2020, when no tournament was held due to the pandemic.

Pope called constantly facing Gonzaga “a gift.”

“It’s a unique gift for us that nobody else in the country gets, really,” Pope said. “In the last couple of years, we’ve played them more than anybody else. You always want to go play the best and they are the very best.”

Knell stressed the importance of the Cougars playing “with a little chip on our shoulder” against the Bulldogs. Lohner stressed finding a way to still play with joy even though the game means so much to them.

“Everyone hates Gonzaga,” Lohner said, “so it’s fun to go play them.”

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