Provo • The importance of the game between the BYU and Gonzaga men’s basketball team could be ascertained by who was among the 18,987 screaming fans who watched it.
Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith. Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk and Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs, both Gonzaga alumni. New BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis and tight end Isaac Rex.
This game meant something — not just to the BYU faithful, but to the larger basketball world. It was the final game between the Cougars and Bulldogs at the Marriott Center as West Coast Conference opponents. The final one occurs on Feb. 11 in Spokane, Wash.
The game itself delivered better than “The Mailman” Karl Malone during his days as a Jazzman. It came down to the wire in front of a sellout crowd while being broadcast on ESPN.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, they gave up a game-winning 3-pointer to Julian Strawther and lost, 75-74. They held a 10-point lead with 5:03 left in the second half. Fans who had been getting ready to storm the court just seconds before Strawther’s shot went home in utter disappointment.
“They scored really well in transition, which they did all night,” said Spencer Johnson, who finished with a team-high 18 points and six rebounds on 7-of-11 shooting. “We might’ve had a turnover or two. We might’ve missed a rebound or a defensive assignment. That’s kind of what did it, I think.”
Johnson said the final five minutes were “all a blur.” That’s exactly how the entire game felt. It was close and exciting throughout, mainly because BYU had its best overall offensive game of the season when taking into account the competition.
The Cougars shot 13-of-25 from the 3-point line and 46.7% overall. In the second half, they seemingly couldn’t miss from the perimeter because they created open shot after open shot. Many of them came from Johnson and Jaxson Robinson, who scored 17 points and went 5 of 8 from the 3-point line. Gideon George made some timely 3s as well and also finished with 17.
Robinson, however, missed a free throw that would’ve put the Cougars up three and likely avoided the game-winner scenario.
BYU coach Mark Pope came into Thursday night’s game saying just how difficult it is to pay the Bulldogs. If the Cougars wanted a sliver of a chance of pulling the upset, they needed to play elite transition defense, rebound at an elite level and take care of the ball like elite teams do.
It would be a stretch to label this year’s Cougars elite. But for nearly 40 minutes, the Cougars tried to play the role.
What Pope lamented, though, was how his team rebounded. They lost the battle 47-32 and gave up 17 offensive rebounds for 16 Gonzaga points. That stat line is completely unlike this year’s Cougars.
“We shot the ball well and we couldn’t rebound the ball,” Pope said. “We gave up 17 offensive rebounds. That’s just brutal.”
Pope added that BYU struggled guarding 2-point shots and “got lost in transition a little bit.” While the team was outscored 42-28 in the paint, it was even with the Bulldogs in fast break points (18-18).
But even with all that, BYU had a chance to upset the No. 8 team in the country. They forced timely turnovers, and for the most part made life hard on Gonzaga defensively. The Cougars probably should’ve won this game.
“We were right there,” Johnson said. “We put ourselves in a really good position to win the game. We just couldn’t quite come through.”
The Cougars now have less than 48 hours to prepare for a Pepperdine team that has lost five in a row, but can score in bunches. Pope said the Waves might be “the best pure offensive team in this league, maybe by far.”
“They’re a problem,” Pope said.
So BYU has to wipe the dust off its shorts in no time and try to avoid a second-straight loss. That process seems to have already started.
“Life and basketball never really ask you what happened,” Johnson said. “They just ask you how you’re gonna respond and what you’re going to do to make it better and to move on and to get better.”