PORTLAND, Ore. — Gonzaga coach Mark Few praised BYU after Thursday's large-margin loss against his basketball team, crediting the Cougars' "great energy" as possibly the biggest factor.
That meant playing physical. It also inferred that the post players were not taking "no" for an answer inside. And the guards, still not exactly on target with shots from beyond 12 feet, were more than willing to (finally?) charge closer to the rim. Defense, of course, was also part of the picture that hypnotized the visitors to Provo.
Few said he saw his nationally ranked Zags, who have dominated the West Coast Conference for a decade and aren't too shabby this year, make six or seven mistakes that he hadn't even seen in practice this season.
So the biggest issue for BYU tonight at Portland (8 p.m. MST; BYUtv) may be continuing what, if not an epiphany, was at least a strong sign that this team may be advancing past the issues of inexperience, injury uncertainty and a case of sporadic execution.
"Their program's used to winning," Few said after his No. 24-ranked team lost by 10 points at the Marriott Center. "I knew we would get their best shot."
Do the Cougars deserve some slack? They'll never ask for it publicly, but it's possible they're worth it. And to recognize they're just starting to figure it out.
Remember, Anson Winder and Brock Zylstra were non-factors last year that are now battling for starter's minutes at shooting guard. Matt Carlino's a freshman point guard. Few knows exactly how flummoxing that can be — he starts a pair of newbies himself in the backcourt, and the Cougars rattled them to the core.
Stephen Rogers and Chris Collinsworth, two definite rotation factors, have created both compassion and uncertainty with their knee issues.
Losing three conference games, including a pair to what's turned out to be the likely champion (St. Mary's), meant a lot of guys that were last season role players had to figure out how to become the clutch ones.
Few saw it a few years ago when Adam Morrison, another mania-causing shooter, left Spokane, Wash., and the Zags were left with a "different identity." They still made the NCAA Tournament, but challenges persisted. It wasn't until February, the coach said, that there was strong confidence.
"And it wasn't quite as easy to score that next year (after Morrison left) ," Few said.
Sound familiar, Jimmer Fredette fans?
But in defeating a ranked team for the first time this year, BYU goes to Portland feeling better about what's possible — not just winning tonight against the young Pilots. But also continuing to get a better sense of self.
Senior forward Noah Hartsock posted his third double-double of the season with 24 points and a career-best 14 rebounds against Gonzaga. After shooting 3-of-10 in the first half he hit seven of his nine shots in the final 20 minutes as BYU's lead three times ran to 19 points. Winder started against Gonzaga, his first honor since Dec. 10 at Utah. He played 27 minutes in the win and totaled 10 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and not one turnover.
His defensive presence can be valuable along the perimeter, and it allows BYU perhaps a more sturdy quick-strike scoring option off the bench with Zylstra.
Are they all figuring it out?
"We can't have those days where we're down, we go into a timeout and we're all looking at each other like 'what happened?'" Winder said, and such a momentum shift only happened once against GU in the opening minutes.
It looked like a lightbulb turned on above Carlino's head, too.
"We played great. Or, at least we played at our pace for 40 minutes," he said, hinting that improvement can be made.
The likes of Hartsock, fellow senior Charles Abouo and junior center Brandon Davies know what's possible if they just keep their heads down and not worry about the peripheral whispering about bids and formulas. So does coach Dave Rose, who's been to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
"This is the time of year we start playing our best basketball, Hartsock said.
Anything less than a comfortable win at Chiles Center would have to be considered a letdown against a 6-17 squad that has already lost to Gonzaga twice by an average of 25 points, and also to down-and-out Utah.
BYU (19-6, 7-3) at Portland (6-17, 3-7)
8 p.m. MST, Chiles Center (4,852) Portland, Ore.
Radio: KSL 1160 AM (102.7 FM)
Tip-ins: BYU has won all 5 meetings, including the last one in Provo (2008). ...F Ryan Nicholas leads the Pilots with an 11.3 ppg average, the only double-digit scorer. ...BYU shooting guard Stephen Rogers (knee) made the trip Friday with the team, but his status is uncertain as he continues to battle swelling.
∫ Jason Franchuk can be reached at email@example.com.
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