Unlike last year’s monumental upset of Gonzaga here, there was no Marriott Center magic Monday night for BYU in Provo.
The only magic this time was the No. 1 ranked Zags making the Cougars’ scoring opportunities disappear.
Gonzaga set the tone early and ended up forcing 19 BYU turnovers — scoring 26 points off those miscues — in an 82-71 victory.
“You turn the ball over 19 times against Gonzaga, the game’s going to be really hard,” said Cougar coach Mark Pope. “It just is.”
“They’re really good in the gaps,” BYU guard Alex Barcello, who scored a team-high 20 points, said of the Zags. “They’re very athletic and quick … They’re good at reading the ball handler. They’re athletic and they use that to their advantage.”
Gonzaga (19-0, 10-0) has now won 16 consecutive games by double digits, the longest streak by a No. 1 team since UNLV reeled off 19 straight in 1990-91.
“For 30 minutes of the game, we were at least recognizable to ourselves. But the game is 40 minutes …” — BYU coach Mark Pope
The Cougars (15-5, 6-3) nearly snapped that streak but Gonzaga made late free throws to secure the double-digit win.
That was kind of the story of the night — every time BYU closed the gap, the relentless, aggressive Zags quickly widened it again.
Yes, this Gonzaga team is good. National championship-good. It has won 23 consecutive games, having last lost at the Marriott Center nearly a year ago.
Freshman Jalen Suggs scored a game-high 24 points while Drew Timme recorded a double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Andrew Nembhard had 15 points and Corey Kispert added 13.
Suggs scored 15 points in the final 20 minutes, including eight in a row during a stretch midway through that half.
“He’s an athlete who can play-make, who pushes the ball fast in transition,” Barcello said of Suggs. “I thought we did a great job on him in the first half. But in the second half, he started to play how he plays — pushing the ball in transition, hitting open shots. He had a great game.”
It marked BYU’s first loss under Pope in the month of February, and its first West Coast Conference defeat at home under Pope.
The Cougars scored 28 field goals but had 19 turnovers. The Zags finished with 10 steals. Gonzaga outscored BYU 40-28 in the paint. The Cougars made 8 of 21 3-pointers.
Just like last month in Spokane, a slow start plagued BYU early on. The Cougars fell behind 15-2 in the game’s opening minutes, which featured four turnovers. BYU dug a 23-2 hole at The Kennel in January in what turned out to be a 17-point loss.
“We talked about the start, we mapped out the start,” Pope said. “We just couldn’t execute it. That’s credit to Gonzaga. It’s something we need to continue to fix ... There was some dysfunction out there.”
Monday, Gonzaga started 6-foot-5 Nembhard instead of 6-8 Anton Watson.
“They’re long in the backcourt and they kind of jump in the passing lanes. They started small today which surprised us a little bit,” Pope said. “They came out playing with tremendous pace. They’re deceptively physical. They took it to us again in terms of physicality. Their bigs do that in a surprising way. Their guards are really, really physical and really long.”
In both meetings this season, the Cougars were out of sorts early on and looked anxious. Monday, for example, Spencer Johnson stole the ball, had a nice behind-the-back pass to Connor Harding, but Harding missed the layup.
That was the kind of the night it was for BYU.
Gonzaga led 34-15 with 6:45 remaining in the first half.
But to the Cougars’ credit, they settled down and finished the half well, cutting the halftime deficit to 41-31.
“I thought we responded really well, actually. We started hitting the cutters and not making those mental mistakes. He crashed the boards harder. We started playing more physical,” Barcello said. “Towards the end of the first half, I felt like our fight was where it should be. I felt like we were being as physical as we should be. We got some stops. I definitely think we had some momentum going into the second half.”
BYU played Gonzaga even early in that half but then the Bulldogs took control. The Cougars fell behind by as many as 22 points (72-50) as the Zags hit nine consecutive shots and put together a 20-6 spurt with 7:19 left in the game.
“In that six-minute stretch, we lost our physicality,” Barcello said.
“We can’t have that when we’re playing the No. 1 team in the country.”
From there, though, the Cougars outscored the Zags 21-10.
“For 30 minutes of the game, we were at least recognizable to ourselves,” Pope said. “But the game is 40 minutes … With an exception of a stretch of four of five minutes, I thought the guys fought really hard and competed.”
While Brandon Averette scored 14 points and Johnson chipped in 11 and Caleb Lohner contributed nine, Matt Haarms had zero points and Harward had only two. Both Haarms and Harward found themselves in foul trouble much of the night. Harward ended up fouling out.
“I was disappointed with us physically in the post. They had their way with us in the post offensively. Timme did,” Pope said. “He’s an elite player. We have to be more physical in our front line. It was not an answer for us tonight and that’s problematic.”
BYU’s scheduled home game Thursday against Saint Mary’s has been postponed. The Cougars’ next scheduled game is Feb. 18 at Pacific.