BYU was granted one final opportunity to knock off Gonzaga at home as members of the West Coast Conference.
And, for much of the second half, the young Cougars, channeling the program’s memorable 2020 performance, and were poised to spring the upset on the No. 8 Zags.
But BYU made too many mistakes in the closing minutes and Gonzaga capitalized, overcoming a 10-point deficit and escaping with a dramatic 75-74 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 18,987 at the Marriott Center Thursday night.
“It definitely hurts us for sure,” said Mark Pope. “It’s a painful loss.”
Despite entering the night having made just 6 of 28 3-pointers in their last two games — and just 32% for the season — the Cougars knocked down 8 of 16 3s in the second half, propelling them to a surprising 68-58 lead with five minutes remaining.
But over the final 1:53, Gonzaga drilled three 3-pointers, including one by Julian Strawther with 9.5 seconds on the clock, putting the Zags up by one.
BYU had one last chance to beat Gonzaga. Spencer Johnson tried to get a potential game-winning 3-pointer off just before the final buzzer but Anton Watson got his hand on it and that block essentially ended the game.
“We were hoping to put the ball in a different spot,” Pope said of his team’s final possession. “Spence made a nice adjustment and tried to get to it and made a decision to use the ball screen and (Gonzaga) jumped it really well… It was a terrific defensive play by Watson, who’s a terrific defender.”
It marked the third consecutive game that saw Gonzaga overcome a double-digit second-half deficit and win.
With 15.9 seconds left, BYU’s Jaxson Robinson made the front end of a one-and-one but missed the second, opening the door for Strawther’s game-winning 3.
Without Robinson’s shooting from long distance, though, the Cougars probably wouldn’t have been in the game. He buried 4 of 5 3-pointers in the second half. Robinson finished with 17 points and five 3-pointers.
BYU (13-7, 3-2) had trouble with Gonzaga’s press and had a couple of crucial late turnovers in the final moments. And Gideon George missed a layup in the final minute that would have given BYU a three-point lead.
“Clearly, we’re super disappointed. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys. They played their hearts out,” Pope said. “We could have executed a little bit better and made some better decisions and come up with some bigger plays, but I thought the guys played really hard and they were composed and they were aggressive… I’m super proud of them. Congratulations to Gonzaga — they made the plays they had to down the stretch to win.”
For the game, the Cougars had 16 turnovers. To what did the Pope attribute those struggles?
“Just new and young. We had a couple of wildly, costly turnovers… We got a little sped up. It’s a learning process,” he said. “In those moments, guys are carrying the weight of everything that happened over the last 40 minutes and thinking about everything that could happen. It’s a little bit easy to get distracted. We have done that. It’s a space where we’ll continue to grow and get better.”
What happened in crunch time for the Cougars?
“It was all a blur, honestly. They scored really well in transition, which they did all night,” Johnson said. “We might have had a turnover or two; we might have missed a rebound or a defensive assignment. That’s kind of what did it, I think.”
Johnson scored a team-high 18 points, including 3 of 4 from 3, to go along with six rebounds, two assists and five steals. George added 17 points.
For the game, BYU hit 13 of 25 from 3-point range.
“We were getting (Gonzaga) also in transition,” Johnson said. “We were pushing the ball really hard, forcing them into rotations. Guys did a really good job of finding the open man and Jax had some huge shots.”
While that was good news for the Cougars, the bad news was that Gonzaga outrebounded BYU 47-32. The Zags grabbed 17 offensive rebounds.
“We took a huge step backwards on the glass. We haven’t been abused on the glass like that all season long,” Pope said. “That’s a major issue for us. It’s been a strength and it’s got to be a strength for us in these big games. That’s also part of the growing process…
“We made a trade. We shot the ball well but we couldn’t rebound the ball. We gave up 17 offensive rebounds and that’s just brutal,” Pope added. “We got lost in transition a little bit. The game is never a one-slice affair. It’s all the pieces of the game. That’s why it’s really messy growing.”
The Zags were led by Drew Timme, who recorded a double-double, scoring a game-high 19 points and pulling down a game-high 13 rebounds. Watson contributed 18 points and eight rebounds.
For Gonzaga (15-3, 4-0), Thursday marked its final appearance at the Marriott Center with BYU as members of the WCC. The Cougars joined the Big 12 this summer.
Following the win in a hostile environment, Zags coach Mark Few reflected on what BYU has meant to the WCC and how the Cougars have helped strengthen his program.
“I don’t think we will make Final Fours without BYU coming in our league. I just don’t,” Few said. “They’ve challenged us. … It’s been a treat to come here and fight.”
While Robinson’s free throw miss with 15.9 seconds was big, Pope said there was plenty of blame to go around.
“Everybody on the court made substantial mistakes in the last minute and 30 seconds, including the coach on the bench,” Pope said. “It’s super important that we focus on things that we’re doing well and the things we’re getting better at and not spending a lot of time indulging in self-pity or feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s a quick turnaround to a monster game on Saturday.
“Jaxson is a gamer and a baller. He’s learning to be a great teammate and he was terrific tonight. It’s going to hurt and he’s going to go back-and-forth and back-and-forth, like all of us are,” Pope added. “We could point out the same thing with every single guy that was on the court literally in the last 90 seconds. We’ve just got to do this together. He knows that. All the guys are putting their arms around him and he’s putting his arms around those guys, too. We had miscues down the stretch.”
BYU hosts Pepperdine Saturday.
TIP-INS: Kelly Olynyk and Collin Sexton of the Utah Jazz were among those who attended Thursday’s game. Olynyk played collegiately at Gonzaga … The Zags started the half 6 of 26 from the floor … Gonzaga outscored BYU in the paint 42-28 … The two teams tied in fastbreak points 18-18.