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BYU looking forward to big showdown at No. 3 Gonzaga in regular-season finale

SPOKANE, Wash. — For BYU, it's a chance to enhance its NCAA tournament profile with a much-needed signature win on the road against a top-5 opponent.

For No. 3 Gonzaga, which has already wrapped up the West Coast Conference championship, it’s a shot to finish with a perfect record in the WCC, earn its 30th win, and take another big step toward securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

That’s what’s at stake when the Cougars and Zags square off Saturday (8 p.m. MST, ESPN2) at the McCarthey Athletic Center in their regular-season finale.

BYU is coming off an 82-69 victory at Portland and is riding a five-game winning streak.

“I feel like our team is peaking at the right time,” said Cougar guard Tyler Haws, who became BYU’s all-time leading scorer last Thursday at Portland and finished with 21 points against the Pilots. “Everyone cares about our season and cares about what’s going on. These last few games are important for what we’re doing. What you hear in there is a lot of hard work that’s gone into this game and this season.”

Meanwhile, Gonzaga has won 22 games in a row overall and 41 consecutive contests at The Kennel — the longest home-court winning streak in the nation. BYU has never beaten the Zags here.

Gonzaga beat the Cougars in Provo 87-80 in the WCC opener way back on Dec. 27.

“The Zags present a lot of challenges,” Haws said. “We’ve just got to go play hard and build on what we’ve been doing and keep rebounding the ball so we can get out in transition and play our game.”

“We’re ready. We’re excited,” said guard Skyler Halford, who scored 19 points, including four 3-pointers, Thursday. “This is just where we want to be. It’s going to be a fun game Saturday. We’re going to be ready to go.”

It’s a showdown between two prolific offensive teams. BYU leads the nation in scoring (84.4 points per game). Gonzaga is No. 14 in scoring (79 ppg) and No. 1 in field goal percentage (53 percent).

Both BYU (22-8, 12-5) and Gonzaga (29-1, 17-0) overcame sluggish first-half performances Thursday night. The Cougars rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit.

“Coaches came in and they laid into us (at halftime), and we deserved it,” said Halford. “We needed to get our intensity level up from top to bottom. Our mindset was to play more harder, play more passionately on defense, and we did that. It helped us out. … We attacked on both ends of the floor.”

The Bulldogs pulled away from San Diego to win 59-39 as center Przemek Karnowski scored 11 of his game-high 14 points in the second half and Domantas Sabonis chipped in 11 off the bench.

Current Sports Illustrated cover boy, and Zags star, Kyle Wiltjer, who scored 45 points last week at Pacific, had just five points against the Toreros. But Gonzaga boasts a lot of depth, including guard Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.

The Cougars enjoyed contributions from several players Thursday in addition to what they got from Haws and Halford. Kyle Collinsworth was just four rebounds short of producing his sixth triple-double of the season and had a career-high 11 assists.

Forward Ryan Andrus scored a career-high eight points — while assisting Haws on his record-breaking shot in the first half — and guard Frank Bartley IV had four steals and three rebounds. Forward Corbin Kaufusi recorded six points and five rebounds. And though Anson Winder was 1-of-8 from the field, he had five steals.

“All the guys played well. We had a lot of depth,” said BYU coach Dave Rose. “Ryan played well in the post. Corbin played well, and Josh (Sharp) and Frank at that four spot and Anson played some minutes at the four. The way you overcome a lot of fouls is get efficient play from your guys.”

Depth has been a huge catalyst for BYU during its five-game winning streak.

“We’re getting more efficient, effective play from more guys,” Rose said. “That’s enabled us to be a little more consistent. We’ve had guys who have been consistent all year long. There are other guys who have been really good, then they’ve struggled a little bit. We’ve got a core group of eight to 10 guys that are playing well every night. That’s helped us put this little streak together.”

After Thursday’s win, BYU players and coaches celebrated with screaming and yelling in the locker room at the Chiles Center. They were reveling in their comeback victory as well as Haws' historic night.

“It was an all-around great team effort,” Haws said of the win.

BYU will need another all-around great team effort to pull off a huge upset and knock off Gonzaga Saturday.