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BYU’s convincing upset of No. 2 Gonzaga came courtesy a strong group of seniors

Yoeli Childs scored 28 points and had 10 rebounds to lead a determined senior-laden BYU team to a convincing 91-78 win over No. 2 Gonzaga on Saturday.

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Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) celebrates with fans who rushed the court after BYU toppled No. 2-ranked Gonzaga 91-78 at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

PROVO — Mark Pope declared this week that his seniors were having a magical season. On Saturday, they made him the Wizard by upsetting No. 2 Gonzaga in a packed Marriott Center and in the end, it was a runaway affair.

Pope emptied his bench to end a game the Cougars led practically from the opening tipoff to the final buzzer. The night was capsulated in a frozen second with a minute left when Conner Harding found Yoeli Childs alone under the bucket for a powerful two-handed throw down.

After BYU’s 91-78 win, the most points scored on the Zags this year, delirious fans poured onto the court in a sea of bodies, smothering Cougar players as Gonzaga coach Mark Few, after handshakes, was the first to leave the court, his disappointed projected No. 1 seed team following, heads down.

BYU overcame an 11-1 Gonzaga run that tightened up the game to within two points with eight minutes left in the game to outscore the Zags by 9 and lead by 15 with 59 seconds to play.

The atmosphere, the intensity, the crowd and high stakes felt like the 2011 BYU win over San Diego State in the days of Jimmer. In Gonzaga’s only other loss of the year, Michigan scored 82 points and the second-most points given up by the Zags were 81 in a win over North Carolina.

Ball movement, defense, hustle, efficient offense and determination were hallmarks of this one. So consistent were the Cougars in the waning minutes, Gonzaga looked tired and gassed and could not keep up with BYU’s energy as these seniors refused to let up or let go.

And on senior night, the last time a handful of Cougars would appear in battle, it was a swan song to remember and Pope’s 100th career win. Pope sorcery it was.

TJ Haws fulfilled the design/mission of remarkable DNA. His father, Marty Haws, was a lightning-fast driver and finisher; his brother Tyler Haws, master of the mid-range jumper, became the school’s all-time scorer. TJ Haws made his final appearances this week in the Marriott Center approaching all-time assist records in a season he made game-winning shots and lifted the Cougars to critical crunch time wins. Last Thursday, TJ Haws almost became the first BYU player ever to get 10 assists and 30 points (28/9) against Santa Clara when he took over the game the final six minutes.

TJ Haws is a slippery snake to guard, human rubber band. He’s got distance and handles.  He has ice in his veins and is a spirited competitor supreme whose engine always redlines.  On this night, he had 16 points and 8 assists and was the best guard on the floor.

As a freshman, Zac Seljaas was one of the NCAA’s hottest 3-point shooters, blistering the net from day one. He then had a journeyman’s career until this season when, under Mark Pope, he turned into the Energizer Bunny on defense, a multifaceted utility player whose intensity is infectious to teammates on the floor, bench and fans in the stands. The ultimate role player, he became a quick answer to defending stretch fours and even centers. Seljaas finishes as a real bad asterisk in the Cougar lineup with an exclamation point stache. 

In this game, he made a key steal, grabbed 5 boards and scored 12 points. He was as intense as anyone in the game off the bench.

Pope called Dalton Nixon the soul of his team after he was pushed midair into a stanchion at LMU, spraining his ankle on both sides. Nixon does the dirty work for the Cougars. He dives for loose balls, cleans up rebounds, sets monster screens, doubled his 3-point accuracy and output in one year and defends like an octopus. Nixon may be one of the most unselfish, team-oriented loyal athletes in the entire school. Give him a job, he asks for a hard hat. He doesn’t complain about weather, splinters, blisters or tasks asked.

Nixon was suited up but sat on the bench until the game was determined in the final seconds and Pope put him on the floor to say goodbye in a dominate win.

What the NCAA did to Yoeli Childs, taking away nine games for taking a peek at the NBA last spring, was unjust and hypocritical. Childs became a man in his BYU career, dominating at times on both the boards and scoring column. He was a double-double machine. Only Hall of Famer Kresimir Cosic has more. But any reporter will tell you, Childs’ greatest trait was his innate kindness, often thanking reporters for routine interviews. He is all class. Put in motion, he became a legend on campus.

On this night, Childs had a double-double, 28 points and 10 boards. He was the strongest, most dominating player on the floor. One could say he earned some money Saturday night with the nation focused on this key matchup when both No. 1 Baylor and undefeated San Diego State lost.

Jake Toolson wandered away from BYU to Utah Valley and became the WAC Player of the Year. His return to a Cougar uniform only built on his reputation as a tremendous finisher, post-up player and remarkable outside shooter from distance. Toolson’s tenacity is only matched by his textbook-perfect shooting form from 3-point land. His accuracy is remarkable and a thing of beauty not seen in the Marriott Center since Jimmer Fredette. He left campus as a head-scratcher but returned as an inspiring, proven leader and performer who delivered once again for Pope.

On this night, Toolson’s arrow 3-pointers were deadly, all five of them, boosting and lifting BYU at key stretches to maintain pressure on the Zags and protect leads.

This group combined to lift BYU to its first national ranking (No. 23) in nine years and pushed their team to become one of the NCAA’s most efficient offensive teams this season and the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the country.

Their trademark is chemistry and unity.  

On this night, they made their coach a prophet. They delivered magic.