Fueled by sellout crowd, BYU earns signature win over No. 2 Gonzaga, enhances NCAA Tournament resume
What’s in BYU’s future is the NCAA Tournament, as the Cougars enhanced their postseason resume with the signature upset over the No. 2 Zags.
PROVO — The fresh scar under BYU senior guard Jake Toolson’s right eye, along with the broad smile on his face, was emblematic of what had just transpired on the Marriott Center floor Saturday night — and the entire season, really.
In front of a sellout crowd of 18,987, on Senior Night, against No. 2 Gonzaga, the No. 23 Cougars battled and scrapped and handed the Zags a 91-78 setback.
With that, BYU (23-7, 12-3) won its eighth straight game and ended Gonzaga’s 19-game winning streak and snapped its 39-game West Coast Conference road winning streak.
“Is there a bigger advantage in the world than that gym tonight? They fed us energy all night long.” — BYU coach Mark Pope
The Cougars built a 14-point lead, 58-44, with 17 minutes remaining in the game, then they had to withstand the inevitable run by the Zags.
“That was unbelievable, the fight that we had. I’m trying to be in the moment. But this team has such big goals,” said senior Yoeli Childs, who scored a game-high 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in his final game at the Marriott Center. “I can’t help but think how encouraging that is for our future, for making the run that we want to make and doing the things that we want to do. Just our ability to continue to fight. Gonzaga is a great team. They made their runs and they had great players out there making great plays. But nothing they did slowed us down.”
What’s in BYU’s future is the NCAA Tournament, as the Cougars enhanced their postseason resume with the signature upset. By late Saturday night, BYU was No. 17 in the Kenpom.com rankings and jumped from No. 18 to No. 14 in the NCAA Net rankings. The Cougars have now beaten two ranked teams — No. 2 Gonzaga and No. 22 Houston.
“I hope all 18,000 of us in there and everybody that watched on TV got to see something they’ll never forget because it was one of those really special moments in sports and it’s not going to be our last,” said coach Mark Pope.
The Zags (27-2, 13-1) rallied to cut the deficit to 70-68 with eight minutes remaining before BYU stood its ground and closed out the game.
“If you want to have a chance to play with the best team in America, which I think the Zags are, then you’d better be dialed in on every possession,” Pope said.
“We knew they were going to make a run. We just took it one possession at a time. We were letting them get out in transition, which is where they do really well,” said Toolson, who finished with 17 points, including 5 of 9 from 3-point range and also had six assists. “Once we took care of that, we were able to get some buckets and extend the lead. We knew they were going to give us their best shot.”
Zac Seljaas, another senior, contributed 12 points and five rebounds and he also threw his body all over the floor, scrambling for loose balls, grabbing rebounds and playing strong defense.
“Zac doesn’t hold anything back,” Pope said. “He’s giving his whole heart and soul and he’s sacrificed so much for this team.”
Over the final five minutes, Alex Barcello and TJ Haws, who scored 16 points and dished out eight assists, hit 3-pointers. On the night, BYU made 11 of 27 3s.
Then Seljaas knocked down a pair of free throws before Childs’ emphatic dunk with 59.3 seconds remaining.
“How is Yoeli Childs not going to be a pro? Are you kidding me?” Pope said. “That’s the best frontline in America right now and this kid just put on a show … in an unbelievable environment.”
And at the final buzzer, the frenzied crowd knew just what to do.
Way back in October, in the wee hours of a Wednesday morning, at the end of Midnight Madness, Pope asked the 2,000-plus students in attendance to practice storming the court.
Saturday night, they rushed the floor for real, savoring the epic win.
Pope praised the student section, which filled their seats two hours before tipoff.
“This ROC is amazing. Did this happen anywhere else in America?” Pope said. “Kids slept out for two nights in 30-degree weather to come to a game? It’s pretty extraordinary.”
As expected, it was an emotional night. Before the game, BYU’s seven seniors were honored during a ceremony.
“It was unbelievable. I was in the tunnel and I started tearing up a little bit,” Haws said. “Yoeli was like, ‘We’ll cry after, bro.’ It was amazing. This place is unbelievable. These fans are incredible. How they showed out tonight was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was fantastic.”
“Is there a bigger advantage in the world than that gym tonight?” Pope said. “They fed us energy all night long.”
Moments into the game, Toolson got tangled up with Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie under the basket and came away with his face bleeding. He had to leave the court to get it cleaned up.
After the game, Toolson wore the scar like a badge of honor.
“I think it looks good. My wife likes it. I’m a tough guy, man,” he said. “I’ll have a black eye on the morning and I’ll show up for church and everyone will say, ‘You’re a tough guy.’”
BYU, which fell to the Zags by 23 points at the Kennel in January, was tougher than Gonzaga on this night.
Early on, Haws drew two charges, helping to set the tone.
“Before the game, in the locker room, coach had ‘Defense wins’ up on the board,” Haws said. “Somebody’s got to take charges if (Dalton Nixon’s) out. I thought I could get a couple tonight.”
The Cougars held the Zags to 5 of 25 on 3-point attempts and forced 14 turnovers.
What did this win prove?
“It just shows that we can learn and grow and we’re not satisfied. We want to continue to get better. That’s been our focus all year long,” Toolson said. “We battled tonight and we laid it all on the line. We want to fight for each other. We’ve got a lot of seniors on this team and it’s their last run at this. We want to do everything we can to win.”
Sporting that bruised cheek, Toolson put Saturday’s win in perspective. That scar could last a long time, just like the impact of that victory.
“We’re all going to remember where we were tonight,” he said, “and the feeling we had in that building.”
“You could be in this business for 50 years and not get that night,” Pope said. “These guys got it. That makes me happy.”