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Caleb Lohner didn’t let taunting Zag fans get the best of him

Lohner finished with 17 points — two shy of tying his season-high — and five rebounds in 22 minutes of action. He made 7 of 10 shots from the floor, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range in a 110-84 loss to No. Gonzaga.

BYU forward Caleb Lohner, right, controls the ball while defended by Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren in Spokane, Wash.
BYU forward Caleb Lohner, right, controls the ball while defended by Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren during Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Spokane, Wash. He finished with 17 points — two shy of tying his season-high — and five rebounds in 22 minutes of action.
Young Kwak, Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash — From the time he strolled onto the floor during warmups Thursday night, about an hour before tipoff, the Gonzaga student section, known as the “Kraziness in The Kennel,” relentlessly jeered and taunted BYU forward Caleb Lohner.

That treatment continued throughout the game.

Zags fans singled Lohner out because of a comment he made Tuesday during media interviews in Provo, which made its way to Spokane. Lohner talked about wanting to be more assertive on the court, then he discussed the challenge of facing the No. 2 team in the country.

And, he added, “Everybody hates Gonzaga; so it’s fun to go play them.” That was the only part of the quote that went viral, of course, which put a target squarely on Lohner’s back.

“There was a media quote that was posted on Twitter,” Lohner said after the Cougars’ 110-84 loss to Gonzaga. “I think it went around. They took what they could and ran with it.”

But the 6-foot-8 sophomore from Dallas seemed to play inspired due to all of the attention.

“In order to win a big game like this, it takes everyone’s 100% effort,” Lohner said. “I gave my 100% effort.”

In the first minute of the game, Lohner drilled a 3-pointer after entering the night having made just 2 of 24 3-point attempts this season.

In the end, Lohner finished with 17 points — two shy of tying his season-high — and five rebounds in 22 minutes of action. He made 7 of 10 shots from the floor, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range.

“I think I did (feed off the crowd),” Lohner said. “As weird as it sounds, I think I liked everyone screaming. There was tons of attention, whether it was negative or positive. I enjoyed it. We’ve just got to get better. We can’t let a team score that many points and expect to beat a high-caliber team like Gonzaga.”

Earlier this season at the Huntsman Center, Lohner — who had signed with Utah before deciding to enroll at BYU — was targeted by Ute fans. He ended up recording a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds in a 75-64 victory over Utah.

Lohner expected to draw the wrath of the Utes at the Huntsman Center, given the history.

But did he expect that kind of treatment Thursday?

“No. Not that much. But I enjoyed it,” Lohner said. “There’s a recurring theme — I’m somehow the hated person at every away game we go to. Which is fine, I’ll take it. But I respect every team we play coming in here.”

This is the full context of Lohner’s comment from Tuesday: “I don’t think I’m playing like how I’ve wanted to play. There have been moments this season where I’ve been pretty good and there have been moments where I haven’t really asserted myself in ways that I really wanted to.

“This is a big game just to get everyone’s confidence and go and play a tough No. 2 team in the country and give it all you’ve got and benchmark yourself of where you are. It’s going to be fun for us as a team, as a program, and as a university. Everybody hates Gonzaga; so it’s fun to go play them.”

Not only did Zags fans boo Lohner every time he touched the ball, but when he was on the bench, they sarcastically chanted, “We want Caleb!” Or they yelled derogatory chants about his playing ability.

After the game, Lohner spent quite a while in the arena talking to his family, which made the trip to Spokane.

Coach Mark Pope liked how Lohner played Thursday.

“He’s been working really hard. He’s a really talented player,” he said. “I was happy for him tonight.”

For BYU’s two freshman big men, Fousseyni Traore, who scored eight points and pulled down seven rebounds, and Atiki Ally Atiki, who had four points and two boards, Thursday was a learning experience.

This was a game where the Cougars really needed Gavin Baxter and Richard Harward, who are out for the season.

Traore and Ally Atiki played against Gonzaga’s elite post players, Drew Timme, who made 13 of 14 shots and scored 30 points, and 7-1 Chet Holmgren, who hit 5 of 7 shots and had 12 points.

“We’re really fortunate to be able to play these games because it lets us know how far we have to go,” Pope said. “We don’t have a lot of time to do it. We have to get way better.

“That’s what these games teach you — they teach you where you are and what you have to do. They force us to explore how we can get better and how we can individually fill assignments better and raise our level of play. That’s why these games are important.”

The Cougars (14-4, 2-1) visit San Francisco Saturday night.

Pope praised Gonzaga and he hopes his players can put this loss behind them.

“They’re really good. They’re really good here. We could not find a defensive answer tonight. Our guys fought and competed and battled. We just couldn’t find an answer,” he said. “Probably the toughest game in the country right now is coming here and playing here. We were clearly not up to the task tonight. It’s an unbelievable gift because it will help us diagnose a ton of ways we need to get better.”

Moving forward, BYU would like to see more performances, and production, from Lohner —like it witnessed Thursday against Gonzaga.