BYU-Zags

BYU Hoops: Rose changes a couple starters, and Cougs change fortunes vs. Gonzaga

2014-02-21T00:30:00Z 2014-03-20T21:00:02Z BYU Hoops: Rose changes a couple starters, and Cougs change fortunes vs. GonzagaJason Franchuk - Daily Herald Daily Herald
February 21, 2014 12:30 am  • 

All the beatings he's taken this year. The hard fouls. The eye gouge early in the season that Eric Mika had to deal with. The elbow to the face that led to another opponent's ejection in league play.

It all seemed to pay off with a coach's pre-game decision and a late, hard fall to the ground that really hurt Gonzaga on Thursday night.

Mika didn't foul as quickly as usual and knew how to draw a really important call at a critical time.

BYU kept alive its still-iffy NCAA Tournament hopes with a 73-65 win at the Marriott Center, fueled by Mika's 13 points and eight rebounds as the freshman center made his first visit to the floor as a reserve.

"I didn't mind it. It was kind of nice to see how the game was going, how the flow was," he said afterward, sweat-soaked and joking that he felt like he never sat at all.

But he played starter's-type minutes (24), as the rowdy Cougar crowd of 19,136 would have expected, and coach Dave Rose's decision to let his freshman get used to the flow paid off major dividends. He had been thinking of making such a move since leaving the Bay Area last weekend after the win against Saint Mary's, in which Mika again battled early foul trouble.

There was insistence in the program the role off the bench (which only lasted a couple of minutes, anyway) had nothing to do with the end-of-game "choke signal" he gestured at some Gaels fans after the highly emotional victory in which Mika had just five points and no rebounds in 17 minutes.

Rose credited Mika's aggressiveness and first-instinct decisiveness being "as good as it's been in a while."

His best move came at the defensive end, when Mika found himself flattened.

GU's best scorer, Sam Dower, had knocked him while trying to clear some space for himself in the pain with about eight minutes left. Mika remembered grappling for position, holding his ground, floating like a butterfly Ali-style — and Dower delivering a shove.

"I just made sure to focus on keeping my arms up and getting around quick on my feet," Mika said.

BYU led 58-54 at the time, and never trailed after that. Dower had 14 points upon contact, and finished with that many to still lead the Bulldogs, who lost for just the second time in West Coast Conference play.

"The feeling, it's unreal," BYU guard Anson Winder said of the slight upset of the nationally ranked opponent.

In fact, the Cougars — who were 1-5 against Gonzaga as WCC members, dating back to a win in the first meeting in 2012 — never trailed in the second half. In the final 20 minutes, the visitors never put together back-to-back scores without the Cougars breaking up the sequence.

That's a pretty amazing thing, considering it was tied at halftime as Tyler Haws spurned GU's late charge with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

BYU scored the opening six points of the second half in a flurry of turnovers and missed shots both ways.

The lead down the stretch never stretched beyond six points, until Matt Carlino came up with back-to-back baskets. He airballed a shot then followed with a jumper with 2:40 left. Gonzaga committed its 16th turnover, then Carlino had a hard drive for a 68-60 lead.

Gonzaga still appears to be a lock to win the outright WCC title, needing just one win in the final three games. The Bulldogs sit at 13-2 (23-5 overall) with a large enough lead on second-place BYU (19-10, 11-5).

But BYU has bigger issues. Like, trying to track down an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.

BYU's only lost once at home (nationally ranked Iowa State) and couldn't afford a second.

"I do believe that the experiences we had early in the year, as a group, has put us in some really tough situations that we had to respond to," Rose said.

The Cougars rarely put themselves in a precarious scoreboard spot, using defense and constructive energy from the outset.

"If that had been maybe our first or second time of trying to deal with that adversity, I don't know how we would have responded," Rose said. "But these guys, they're bonded together. They're bonded through the rigors of this season. The last two games, that's really paid off."

BYU won at Saint Mary's last Saturday in another gut-check. It was a late rally. BYU was in front basically the whole time against GU, though never in early-celebration mode.

Gonzaga wouldn't give in totally. It reeled off a 15-2 run to go up, 39-36, with 18 seconds before half. Haws countered with an off-balance 3-pointer right before the buzzer.

BYU scored the first six points of the second half, though it came over the course of the opening 3:18 before GU's Mark Few called timeout after watching three turnovers and as many missed shots.

Gonzaga scored right out of the timeout with a 3-point play, and it would do that a few more times in the second half.

But never enough to threaten with another tie.

In the first half, BYU built an early seven-point lead at 10:37 after Mika hit a couple of free throws.

He looked as aggressive as he's been in conference play, able to come off the bench and avoid foul trouble until later in the second half. He produced nine free-throw attempts (making five) and rarely looked timid except in obviously important situations to avoid a referee's whistle during GU drives to the basket when there was leverage against him.

It wasn't just his new assignment that worked out.

Rose made the move to start Anson Winder at a guard spot instead of struggling Skyler Halford (his third starting-five role this year) and also use somewhat undersized Josh Sharp in place of Mika at the beginning. Rose considered using freshman backup center Luke Worthington for a first college start, but a sprained shoulder from the Saint Mary's game offered some doubt about how much the Wisconsin native could help.

There was no doubt about Rose pushing the right buttons.

Haws wasn't his typical self aside from the 3-pointer at the half. One of the nation's top scorers produced half his average (12 points) on 5-of-12 shooting.

But besides Mika, Winder poured in a team-high 17 points. He made all 10 foul shots on a night the Cougars were miserable (especially early) at the stripe: 19-for-28.

BYU led by as many as 10 points twice about midway through the second half. Another aggressive lay-in from Mika produced a 32-22 margin at 6:15, and he followed with a putback on the next possession.

It was part of an 11-point, five-rebound first half.

Halford even contributed four early points off GU turnovers.

GU missed 14-of-18 3-pointers overall, after making seven in the second half alone in the first meeting, last month in Spokane, Wash.

Mika's first appearance, to a big ovation, came maybe a little faster than the Cougars wanted. Sharp picked up his second foul just 2:54 into the game.

Mika was worth waiting for, though. And the necessary conference win against a nationally ranked GU couldn't come soon enough.

"The guys should be feeling pretty good," Rose said.

BYU has two regular-season games left, including the home finale against Portland on Saturday. A trip to San Diego is next Saturday, and then the conference tournament — where there would still be a last-ditch chance to win it, and get an automatic bid into the NCAA's field of 68.

But BYU sure didn't look like it wanted to count on that against GU.

"We're trusting each other more and more each game," Winder said.

jason-franchuk
-- Jason Franchuk covers primarily BYU football and basketball for the Daily Herald. You can connect with him by email at jfranchuk@heraldextra.com or by following him on Twitter at

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