‘It’s going to be sheer insanity’: What to watch for when No. 23 BYU hosts No. 2 Gonzaga on Senior Night at sold-out Marriott Center
It’s the first time the two programs will meet as ranked teams and for BYU, it’s a chance to enhance its NCAA Tournament resume if it can find a way to upset the Zags.
PROVO — For No. 23 BYU, it’s a dream scenario.
It’s the confluence of a remarkable season, the celebration of stellar careers and a monumental matchup.
The Cougars, riding a seven-game winning streak, are hosting No. 2 Gonzaga on Senior Night in front of a sellout crowd and a national television audience Saturday night (8 p.m., MST, ESPN2).
It’s the first time the two programs will meet as ranked teams — and for BYU, it’s a chance to significantly enhance its NCAA Tournament resume, if it can find a way to upset the Zags.
“It’s awesome. It’s a great opportunity for our team. We’re up for the challenge.” — BYU’s Jake Toolson
Before Saturday’s game, the school will honor seven seniors on the roster — Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws, Jake Toolson, Zac Seljaas, Dalton Nixon, Evan Troy and Taylor Maughan — who will be playing in their final game at the Marriott Center.
“It’s what makes Senior Night great. We’ve talked for a long time about seniors being magic. And these guys, with everything they’ve gone through in their respective careers, their last home game is the first time they’ve ever been ranked,” said coach Mark Pope. “It’s two ranked teams going head-to-head in the Marriott Center in a sold-out arena. If you would have asked us if we would take that before the season started, every single one of us would have signed up a million times over. What the seniors have accomplished is breathtaking.
“We get a chance to duke it out in front of the whole BYU Nation against the best team in America on Saturday. We couldn’t ask for anything more. We’re so excited. … It’s going to be sheer insanity.”
“It’s awesome. It’s a great opportunity for our team. We’re up for the challenge,” Toolson said. “They’re a good team. We’ve been getting better all year long. It’s cool how this season has come together. Down the stretch there are fun opportunities for us. We’re really excited about it.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few knows what kind of atmosphere his team will be walking into Saturday night.
”There will be 18,000 there and it will be electric,” he said. “BYU is having a phenomenal year. We have to play great to get out of there with a win.”
BYU found itself in a battle Thursday night against Santa Clara before pulling away for an 85-75 win. The Cougars, who lead the nation in 3-point shooting, made only 3 of 13 from 3. And all three of those 3s came from Childs (2) and Kolby Lee (1). To knock off the Zags, BYU probably will need to knock down a flurry of 3s.
Gonzaga (27-1, 13-0) also had its struggles Thursday, trailing 31-22 San Francisco at halftime at home before outscoring and overwhelming the Dons 49-23 in the second half for a 71-54 win.
The Zags, who are No. 1 in the country in scoring, were led by Killian Tillie, who scored 22 points and collected nine rebounds. Filip Petrusev added 16 and Ryan Woolridge had 12.
Winners of 19 straight games overall, Gonzaga is looking to post back-to-back undefeated seasons in league play. The Zags have won 40 straight regular-season conference games.
BYU fell to Gonzaga 92-69 in Spokane on Jan. 18.
“I left that game feeling like, ‘Give us a month back at our place. Circle that game. We’ll be ready,’” Toolson said. “We hung around and we were right there, just a few plays away from turning the game. We have a lot left in the tank. I’m excited to go out there and play.”
In that contest at The Kennel, the Cougars were without two injured big men, Childs and Gavin Baxter. They’ll both play Saturday, though Baxter is still adjusting after missing the first 25 games of the season due to a shoulder injury.
“It gives us more depth and certainly they’re two incredibly talented players. I think it maybe gives us a chance to trust a few different things on the defensive end, where maybe in some ways we have more manageable matchups,” Pope said. “Certainly, Yoeli is a handful. You can’t approach our team and think about Yoeli and not think you have to have some kind of special game plan that’s focused on him in some way. That changes a lot. He’s one of the best players in the country.”
Meanwhile, the Cougars (22-7, 11-3) are without Nixon, who is nursing an injured ankle suffered last week at Loyola Marymount.
“Dalton brings so much. It’s definitely a challenge not having him,” said Haws, who scored 28 points against Santa Clara. “But we have guys that are ready to step up. Dalton brings so much energy. It’s going to take all five guys to bring the same energy that he does.”
BYU has lost five in a row at home against Gonzaga — the Cougars haven’t beaten the Zags at the Marriott Center since 2014. And BYU has lost five straight overall to Gonzaga.
The Cougars outrebounded Santa Clara 41-32 Thursday, including 10-4 on the offensive boards. BYU will need to be strong on the glass against the Zags.
Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 earlier in the season, but it was leapfrogged by Baylor for the top spot several weeks ago, even though Gonzaga hasn’t lost a game since falling to Michigan on a neutral floor in November.
“They’re good, man. I don’t know how you win all your games and somehow mysteriously you go from No. 1 to No. 2.” Pope said of the Zags. “I think they’re the best team in the country right now.”
Pope can’t wait for his seniors to take on this huge challenge in front of a sellout crowd, an opportunity that he said his players have earned.
“I’m really grateful that people have been able to see these guys. You get to know Zac Seljaas and it’s really hard not to cheer for him. You get to know TJ Haws and you chronicle his story and it’s hard not to cheer for him. Jake Toolson, how do you not cheer for Jake? And Yoeli Childs? You go down the list,” he said. “That’s the thing that makes me happy, that people have got to witness these guys trying to grow and figure things out and serve each other and sacrifice for each other through the season. It’s really fun to watch. It’s fun to know their stories. I think people are also excited that these guys have put a good product on the floor. And when you come to a game, you see them put their heart and soul on the floor, win or lose. They’re putting everything on the floor. You leave the gym inspired. For all those reason, I’m just happy that people get to witness it.”
Cougars on the air
No. 2 Gonzaga (27-1, 13-0)
at No. 23 BYU (22-7, 11-3)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MST
Radio: KSL 1160 AM, BYU Radio