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BYU pushes No. 1 Gonzaga to the brink before falling short in WCC title game

“They really took the fight to us, especially in that first 20 minutes,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said after the Zags rallied to beat the second-seeded Cougars.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Spencer Johnson (20) reaches out to try to foul Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Joel Ayayi (11) as BYU and Gonzaga play in the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Gonzaga won 88-78.
Brigham Young Cougars guard Spencer Johnson (20) reaches out to try to foul Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Joel Ayayi (11) as BYU and Gonzaga play in the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Gonzaga won 88-78.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — For quite a while Tuesday night in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game at Orleans Arena, BYU fans were dreaming big.

Watching on national television, Cougar Nation may have been rubbing its collective eyes watching its team handle No. 1, undefeated Gonzaga in the first half, as the Cougars were leading by as many as 14 just before halftime.

The Zags were unexpectedly on their heels.

Perhaps it would be a night that comes around once every 20 years. That’s how long it’s been since BYU has won a conference tournament title. Sure, the Cougars have recorded monumental upsets against the Zags in Spokane (including a team that was 29-0 at the time) and in Provo (remember last season?)

But it’s never happened in Las Vegas — and it still hasn’t.

As if almost on cue, the top-seeded Zags flipped everything around in the second half, turning a 12-point halftime deficit into a 10-point win over the No. 2 seed BYU, 88-78.

With that, Gonzaga (26-0) kept its perfect season alive, as the team that is projected as the No. 1 overall seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament rallied in emphatic fashion.

The Zags have rarely been challenged all season like they were Tuesday night. It was the test they needed before entering the Big Dance.

Just ask coach Mark Few.

“It ended up being a great ballgame. I want to give BYU a ton of credit. They really took the fight to us, especially in that first 20 minutes,” he said. “We couldn’t stop them. They had us on roller skates. They were outcompeting us and beating us to balls. They were executing their offense and making big shots. I think they showed themselves to be a heckuva team and a top 25-level team.”

Gonzaga led 13-11 six minutes into the game and right after that, BYU seized an advantage it wouldn’t relinquish until late in the second half.

The Cougars’ last lead was with seven minutes remaining, 68-67. But the Zags went on a 23-5 run over an eight-minute stretch late in the second half to secure the victory.

“Credit to Gonzaga for putting some pressure on us. I felt like we were trying to manage a little bit of fatigue and running out of gas,” said BYU coach Mark Pope. “It was a combination of those two things that were significant. We got some good looks but the ball didn’t bounce our way a little bit. Our guys executed really well. For our team to only have eight turnovers is remarkable.”

Early in the second half, Gonzaga senior Corey Kispert drilled back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers — pumping his fist on the third one, as if making a statement, as if to declare that his team was back as it pulled to within three points, 55-52.

But the Cougars didn’t fold. They managed to keep the Zags at bay and maintain a lead for another nine minutes.

Late in the game, it was freshman Jalen Suggs, the WCC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, who hit back-to-back 3s to seal the game in the final two minutes. He finished with a game-high 23 points.

“He’s a really talented player and a good leader. He’s invested in making the right play. He’s long and athletic,” Pope said. “We challenged him to make shots in the second half and he did. He’s a terrific player.”

“The bigger the moment,” Few said of Suggs, “the better he is.”

The Zags outscored Cougars (20-6) in second half, 47-25.

But what about the way BYU started the game? The Cougars looked confident and they played aggressively, showing no fear against Gonzaga.

BYU led by as many as 14, 53-39, late in the first half. The Cougars hit 21 of 31 shots from the field and 9 of 13 from 3-point range and they had just three turnovers.

It marked Gonzaga’s largest halftime deficit since it trailed North Carolina by 14 points.

Certainly, it was opposite of what happened to BYU the first two times it played the Zags this season. The Cougars fell behind 23-2 in Spokane and they trailed 15-2 in Provo.

Gonzaga waited until the second half to show its dominance this time.

“I thought we started out great. Our mindset was great coming into the game,” said BYU guard Alex Barcello, who scored 15 points and had six rebounds and four assists. “Playing them for the third time, it’s hard to beat a team three times. We knew that if any team’s going to beat them, we were the team.

“Guys were really focused. We were focused on being physical and we were focused on rebounding. Gonzaga responded in the second half. We had a really good first half, then some shots didn’t fall for us and we didn’t grab a couple of rebounds in the second half and Gonzaga pulled away.”

BYU sophomore Trevin Knell scored a career-high 20 points and hit 5 of 10 3-pointers.

“Trevin is not lacking for confidence. He had a great night for us. He was really solid on the defensive end,” Pope said. “He made shots for us. (Gonzaga) left some opportunities for him to make shots. He did a nice job and our guys did a nice job finding him. Like everybody on our team, he can step up and make big plays for us and he did tonight.”

For Few, this game was the ideal tuneup before the NCAA Tournament, which tips off next week in Indianapolis.

“I’m proud of us. We needed a game like that. We hit some adversity and we got punched in the face,” he said. “We got together at halftime and just back to sticking with the plan. The guys came out and played fantastic defense in the second half. Obviously our offense got going because of our defense. We were able to get a good win.”

Gonzaga is one of only a handful of teams in modern college basketball history to get through a regular season undefeated. Indiana’s 1976 team is the last program to go undefeated for an entire season.

“We finally acknowledged that this is a big deal,” Few said. “It puts us in some incredible company. It’s a heckuva accomplishment.”

Suggs is hoping Tuesday’s test will serve them well in the Big Dance.

“Like coach said, we needed one of those, just to let us know that anyone can be beat on any given night,” he said. “The way we stuck together, the way we kept everybody motivated and the talk we had in the second half was the best talk we’ve had all season. I haven’t stopped smiling since the confetti started falling. It was a great night.”

Though disappointed with the outcome, the Cougars also have something to look forward to: Selection Sunday. That’s when BYU expects to hear its name called on the NCAA Tournament bracket for the first time in six years.