LAS VEGAS — As the old adage goes, it’s tough to beat the same team three times in the same season.

No. 15 BYU found that out the hard way Tuesday afternoon in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game against Gonzaga.

The No. 2 seeded Cougars, who defeated the No. 3 seeded Zags twice during the regular season, led only once Tuesday, 2-0. 

After that, Gonzaga took control, upsetting BYU 71-59 at Orleans Arena and earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“Tonight just wasn’t our night. We didn’t play the way we normally do. It happens sometimes,” said Cougar coach Jeff Judkins.

“But I’m so proud of these guys. Now we’re going to be off to something we’ve been really working hard for — the NCAA Tournament.”

Yes, the Cougars will go to the Big Dance, but it would appear that any hopes of landing a top-16 overall seed, and perhaps hosting the first two rounds, have been dashed. 

As poorly as BYU played throughout most of the game Tuesday, it still managed to whittle a double-digit deficit down to three, 46-43, early in the fourth quarter. 

But instead of folding — Gonzaga squandered a 15-point lead in a loss to the Cougars in Spokane on Feb. 5 — the Zags answered with a 12-3 run. 

In the decisive fourth quarter, Gonzaga made 6 of 8 shots from the field and 13 of 16 from the free throw line. 

BYU shot 6 of 18 in the final period and 21 of 65 (32%) for the game. 

It was a much different outcome than the first two meetings between the two rivals. Back on Feb. 19, the Cougars crushed the Zags 63-39 in Provo. 

“They probably didn’t like that we smacked them on Senior Night. They probably wanted to come in show us what was up. They did that,” said guard Paisley Johnson, who shot 3 of 15 from the field and finished with 14 points Tuesday.

“They played really well. They hit big shots when they had to. Their whole team produced, which was a downfall for us, I think.”

Added Maria Albiero: “We played Gonzaga three times this year. We know them really well and they know us really well. They know how to take us out of certain things.

“Today, we didn’t hit a lot of our open shots. All of us tried to do a little bit too much, not helping each other. We’ve got to learn from it and figure it out. We’ve got to knock shots down and play better.”

Gonzaga’s twin guards Kaylynne and Kayleigh Truong were double trouble for the Cougars, as they combined to score 26 points.

Kaylynne Truong’s 3-pointer from the corner with 3:48 left in the game was a dagger.

“When those twin sisters aren’t hitting, they’re in trouble. There’s nowhere else they can score. Tonight, they hit shots,” Judkins said.

“They had the same shots when we played them in Provo. We had the same shots we had in Provo. That’s why this game of basketball is so crazy.”

Judkins explained that the Zags’ game plan was to take Harding and WCC Player of the Year Shaylee Gonzales out of their comfort zone.

“Gonzaga funneled Paisley and Shaylee into the middle and clogged it up,” he said. “They said, ‘Lauren (Gustin) and Maria, and whoever else I brought off the bench, we’re going to give you the open shot.’ They took the gamble, and it paid off.”

Gonzales made 7 of 18 shots and finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds. 

“With me, they clogged the paint … they did the same for Shaylee,” Harding said. “They were going to key in on us and take us away. They were physical in the post and went up strong.”

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In the first half, BYU’s offense was stagnant and the Cougars struggled to make baskets. While Gonzaga made 8 of its first 11 shots from the field, BYU started 3 of 13. Gonzales missed six of her first seven attempts. 

The Cougars fell behind by as many as eight in the first quarter, 16-8. 

“At the start of the game, they really punched us in the face and got the ball where they wanted to inside. We didn’t defend it that well,” Judkins said.

“On the offensive end, we tried too hard to make something happen. If we had moved the ball better, we would have been better. It felt like we were climbing uphill the whole game.”

Harding buried a 3-pointer to start the second quarter, but BYU scored just six points during the final nine-plus minutes of the period. 

The Zags went on an 8-2 run to take a 25-17 advantage and eventually built a 10-point lead, 29-19, in the final minute of the second quarter. 

The Zags led 29-21 at halftime.

At that point, BYU was shooting just 28% (8 of 29) from the floor, had nine turnovers and was getting out-rebounded 21-16. 

In the second half, the Cougars played better at times, but not well enough to get over the hump. 

Gonzaga’s post players hurt BYU as well. Forward Melody Kempton scored a team-high 15 points, while Anamaria Virjoghe had six points, six rebounds and four blocks.

Yvonne Ejim added 11 points and had two blocks.

“It’s hard playing a team three times and try to beat them,” Judkins said. “You have to give them credit. They were really aggressive.”

Judkins credited Gonzaga but he also wanted to remind everybody what happened during the regular season, when the Cougars won the outright WCC title with a 15-1 record.

“I want to congratulate Gonzaga. They played really well tonight. They’re the tournament champs,” he said. “But I’m proud of my team because we are conference champs. We played a two-month season and fought through a lot of stuff.”

“We’re disappointed but there’s so much up to our team,” Harding said. “We went out there and fought. (Gonzaga) fought harder. Unfortunately, they really played well against us tonight.”

Now the Cougars will wait for Selection Sunday to see where they’re headed for the NCAA Tournament. 

“It’s sad that we lost this,” Judkins said. “But my team will bounce back, I promise you.”