As if there were any doubts before, Gonzaga emphatically showed once again why it is the nation’s No. 1 team.

This time, it was at BYU’s expense.

In the Cougars’ West Coast Conference opener Thursday night at The Kennel, with no fans in attendance, the Zags ended the drama early, racing to a 30-7 lead in the opening minutes, leading by as many as 32 in the second half, and cruising to an easy 86-69 victory. 

“They have a chance to be a generational team. They certainly started the season that way. They’re really difficult to handle,” BYU coach Mark Pope said of Gonzaga. “This team has steamrolled four teams in the top 20. They’re really, really good. I’m not trying to take anything away from the Zags but they didn’t get the best BYU team in the first 10 minutes of this game. That’s my job.”

Gonzaga, which snapped BYU’s modest four-game win streak, is simply on a different level. Not just a different level than BYU and the WCC — but all of college basketball. 

This season, the Bulldogs have recorded wins over No. 3 Iowa, No. 5 Kansas, No. 11 West Virginia and No. 15 Virginia.

Thursday, it was the Cougars’ turn against Gonzaga. So BYU is in good company in that regard. 

With the win, the Zags (11-0, 2-0) extended their home winning streak to 45 games, the longest in the nation. They’ve now won 15 straight games and 23 WCC games in a row at home.

BYU (9-2, 0-1) hadn’t played in more than two weeks while Gonzaga had played four games in that same span. The Cougars only had a couple of days to prepare for the Zags — after the game was rescheduled early this week due to postponements — but a whole month of prep for the nation’s best team probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Gonzaga became the first team to score at least 80 against BYU this season. 

“It’s hard to simulate a team like this,” Pope said. “They’re really good.”

BYU was hoping to neutralize Gonzaga’s transition game but the Zags outscored the Cougars on fastbreak points (16-2) and points off turnovers (25-7). 

BYU’s guardline struggled mightily against Gonzaga. Alex Barcello hit just 3 of 11 shots and Brandon Averette went 1 of 5. Barcello had nine points and Averette ended up with three.

As for the Zags, Corey Kispert scored a game-high 23 points, Jalen Suggs had 16, and Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard each contributed 12. 

“I can’t remember the last time there were three players on the same team all up for the Wooden Award,” Pope said. “Maybe there have been, but I haven’t heard of it.” 

The good news for BYU? The Cougars kept competing despite the lopsided deficit. 

And BYU’s bench was a bright spot as Caleb Lohner scored a career-high 13 points, Richard Harward added 12 and Gideon George finished with 11. 

“Those are probably our best athletes and they fit in the game,” Pope said of that trio. “This is a game that made a lot of sense to Gideon. I was really  proud of Caleb for the most part. He’s making good strides. Rich was a physical and somewhat effective presence down low.”

The Cougars outrebounded the Zags, 38-33. Gonzaga entered the game leading the nation in shooting at 55.4% and it ended up shooting just 49%. But with 11 minutes remaining, the Zags were leading comfortably, 75-45, and were shooting 57% at that point. 

“They have a chance to be a generational team. They certainly started the season that way. They’re really difficult to handle.” — BYU coach Mark Pope on Gonzaga

Gonzaga set the tone against BYU from the start. The Cougars’ first possession resulted in a steal, layup and an and-one by Suggs. BYU had five turnovers over the first five minutes. 

The Zags’ suffocating defense and their sleek, precise ball movement overwhelmed BYU. With 14 minutes left in the half, Gonzaga led 23-2. Moments later, the Bulldogs increased their lead to 30-7. 

“We started really poorly. Their length really affected us. I did a poor job of getting our energy right to start the game,” Pope said. “I’m not sure exactly why. We’re trying to figure that out right now. It wasn’t that our guys weren’t excited to play. The moment, for this group, was just too big for us to start. (Gonzaga’s) length and athleticism, it was not surprising, but it’s just different. We did not respond well early on and kind of dug ourselves a hole.”

But the Cougars didn’t panic — they gradually chipped away at that deficit and produced an impressive spurt.

Late in the half, Gonzaga was up 37-16 before BYU went on a 10-2 run that saw a pair of 3-pointers by Averette and Lohner and back-to-back buckets by George to pull the Cougars to within a respectable 13 points at 39-26. 

“I was really proud of the guys. At no point in the game did they walk away. That is not a consolation for losing. That is the DNA of a team that has a chance to be really, really good,” Pope said. “It was a tough night. We clearly didn’t start out well against the best team in the country. For the guys to stay locked in for the entire game, trying to compete and trying to get better, that’s who we are, and that’s what we have to do, and we will.”  

But after a timeout, Gonzaga scored 13 straight points to go up 52-26. An old-fashioned 3-point play by Lohner with 28 seconds left in the half made it 52-29 at intermission. 

At that point, BYU had 11 turnovers compared to 10 field goals. 

Meanwhile, Wyatt Lowell suffered a leg injury early in the second half and did not return. 

“We’re not optimistic,” Pope said. “I hope the doctors’ guesses are wrong right now. That is certainly discouraging.” 

The Cougars have a bye Saturday and are scheduled to play at Saint Mary’s next Thursday.