SPOKANE — BYU is making a habit of upsetting nationally ranked Gonzaga on its home court.
The Cougars overcame a 13-point second half deficit to knock off the No. 25 Zags, 69-68, for the second consecutive time in a thriller before a sellout crowd of 6,000 at The Kennel Thursday night.
BYU won despite shooting 17 percent from 3-point range (3 of 17) and giving up a game-high 35 points to Bulldog star forward Kyle Wiltjer.
So how did the Cougars (13-5, 4-1) pull off the feat this time, less than one year after shocking then-No. 3 Gonzaga here?
“It gives you confidence going in that we’ve done it before and we can do it again,” said guard Kyle Collinsworth. “We had to have a perfect effort. We didn’t have to play perfect by any means. But our effort was pretty darn close to perfect.”
Ultimately, the Cougars won with defense and with big plays at crucial moments.
Forward Nate Austin blocked a Wiltjer shot with two seconds remaining that all but sealed the victory.
“It’s a real character-building win for our team, as far as us being able to keep a supreme effort defensively and stay with our game plan,” said coach Dave Rose. “Wiltjer was really, really good tonight. We were able to continue to get stops when we weren’t scoring, which allowed us to stay in the game.”
While BYU’s outside shots weren’t falling, the Cougars outscored Gonzaga (13-4, 5-1) 40-20 in the paint.
BYU’s first 3-pointer came with 8:30 left in the game by Chase Fischer in the corner after 13 consecutive misses. That 3-pointer cut the Cougars’ deficit to 56-54.
With 12 minutes remaining, BYU trailed 54-41. Fischer’s much-needed 3-pointer capped a 13-2 run.
Collinsworth, who sat out much of the first half in foul trouble, scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half, including a clutch 3-pointer with a little less than four minutes remaining.
“Kyle came to life and made some shots and Chase hit that first big 3 for us to break that open,” Rose said. “We kept saying in the huddle, ‘It’s going to turn.’ But when it turns, it needs to be reachable. It can’t be out of hand as far as the score was concerned. Our guys stayed with it.”
With 2:57 left, Fischer scored off an in-bounds play and finished the and-one to give BYU its first lead since early in the first half. Later, with 1:36 remaining, Nick Emery buried a 3-pointer to put BYU up 69-67. The Cougars didn’t score again — but it was enough.
“I think the theme of the night was staying in the present and staying positive,” Collinsworth said. “We had some guys get into foul trouble and we stayed positive and we kept fighting. For me, sitting out 11 minutes, in my mind I said, ‘This could be a blessing because I’ll be well-rested in the second half.’ I looked at it as that and that’s what it was. It was staying positive through the ups and downs.”
In the wild final minute, Austin blocked a shot by Eric McClellan, then rejected Wiltjer in the closing seconds.
Austin said his team relied on its defense all night.
“We had confidence in our defense that we could get stops,” he said. “We had confidence in each other that we could make plays and help each other out. Our team’s been in this spot before. We were down big against Utah and Colorado. Those are games we didn’t win but we battled back. Deep down, we knew we could come back and make it a game. It wasn’t a perfect game by any stretch, but in the end our team came out on top. That’s what matters.”
“Our effort was good and consistent. I told them they didn’t have to play a perfect game but we had to have a consistent effort,” Rose said. “This is how the games go here. We have a hard time being consistent offensively. If we could stay close, when the spurts come, we could be successful. We hit free throws in the first half that kept us in it. In the second half, our defense won it for us.”
BYU visits Portland Saturday (4 p.m., MST, ROOT RM).