There was a considerable amount of time to start Thursday that BYU couldn't make a thing outside of four feet.
And for a team that still is often scraping the orange off the rims with shots from the 3-point line, that didn't seem like a good thing to have virtually zero range.
But the broader picture against Gonzaga, after being stuck on hapless the last couple of games at the Marriott Center, was the Cougars stuck with it.
And they sure stuck it to the West Coast Conference kings, 83-73, after going to halftime ahead by 14 points and never letting off the throttle in their first win against a ranked team this year.
"Execute the way we need to, and just keep playing" — that's what Noah Hartsock said was the message from BYU coaches to the team the past few days.
Both competitors, no strangers to league championships, appear to have let that conquest slip by this year. BYU head coach Dave Rose at least shared a crown four times in the past six years of the Mountain West days. Gonzaga leader Mark Few has dominated the WCC for a decade.
St. Mary's has won a combined three meetings against the pair, with only a rematch at the Zags' house awaiting next Thursday.
But BYU really doesn't have time to fret the absence of a banner, or even the Gael-force wins that have obliterated them twice.
What it needed was a banner night like this one, in front of a much more positive-energy crowd with a much more worthy atmosphere for cheering the home team.
"I expected them to come out like their backs were against the wall, and they did," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, a friend of counterpart Dave Rose. "I knew they were frustrated with where they were at. Those guys have won a lot. We expected their best effort and we got it."
What Rose called "fanatical effort" was the only way to get on the right path, if those hopes at a sixth consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament haven't already hit a dead end before the conference tournament that starts at the end of the month.
BYU, improving to 19-6 (7-3 in WCC games), led, 55-36, when Gonzaga made a final run with eight straight points in a brief span.
Then the Cougars, facing full-court pressure, committed a turnover right before the media timeout at 11:53.
The student section, feeling a bit stung considering the recent history, looked rattled as it performed a flash mob dance.
But the new times, it turned out, could be like the old times. Few said his team for the most part was "rattled, frazzled and played with no poise or composure." It was the first time he'd seen it this year.
The last chance turned into a lost cause.
The Cougars didn't let the lead dip immediately below 11 points, forcing a couple of harried Gonzaga shots and converting for baskets the other way.
First Hartsock (game-high 24 points), then Brandon Davies (15) and Hartsock again at 10:01 on a layup that was goaltended, but still went through the hoop.
It had been quite some time since a crowd had been that loud here.
"I think that's what is disappointing," Few said, also calling his team "rattled and frazzled." He said his team handled Provo worse than any road-environment in recent years.
It helped that BYU started hitting a couple of 3-point shots, slashing swiftly to the rim for scores — like a lot of Matt Carlino's 18 points — and Hartsock even chucked in a deft beauty — taking a long carom off a teammate's missed 3-pointer, and sinking a fadeaway jumpshot from about 15 feet without pause. BYU took just 12 3-pointers, making three. The Cougars toned it down from distance, and turned it up elsewhere.
"We kind of wore them out, I think," Carlino said after hitting 7-of-13 shots, taking only two 3-pointers.
The Zags helped out, too. Just like BYU of late, it couldn't hit a long shot (1-for-14) and missed 17 of their final 20 shots of the first half, over the course of 15 minutes. It even squandered a final possession in the first half, facing no threat of a shot clock, by committing a turnover that the Cougars turned into a layup right before the buzzer.
After trailing 7-2, thanks to a big spark from freshman guard Anson Winder getting his first start since Dec. 10 (10 points), Gonzaga went on an 8-0 run for its biggest lead.
A close game, or even another defeat? Gonzaga never fully went away, but luckily for BYU its season didn't either.
It didn't just have the crowd's support. It went out and earned it.
"I don't think it really ever left," Carlino said of the team's swagger. "We're a pretty confident group of guys. But we weren't playing that well, at least from the perimeter. The inside guys were doing their thing. I just think we attacked the basket a lot more tonight. and that helped us out."
A lot more positive energy late Thursday.
Definitely, more positive results. BYU leads No. 24-ranked Gonzaga, 38-24, after a scorching final four minutes at the Marriott Center before halftime turned a close game into the Cougars looking like a team that never loses in Provo.
BYU led 27-20 after Gonzaga missed the front end of bonus free throws with 4:10 left. From there, Zags coach Mark Few had to use a couple of timeouts to try and stall the momentum surging against his team.
Damarcus Harrison, quiet basically all of West Coast Conference play, sparked his team with a pull-up jumpshot and a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions that ran the BYU margin to 34-22.
Noah Hartsock followed with a jumper of his own at the 1:57 mark. The reliable senior forward wound up squandering BYU's next three possessions with missed shots from various ranges.
But BYU, despite Gonzaga having the chance at the last possession, still scored right before the buzzer.
Craig Cusick stepped in front of a cross-court pass above the 3-point line and fed Anson Winder for a streaking layup that left his hand right before the backboard light flashed red.
Seven Cougars have scored, led by nine from Brandon Davies. The junior center, who considered Gonzaga during his high school days, has made 4-of-7 shots in 18 minutes.
Hartsock has eight and Winder's been a pleasant surprise with seven.
The redshirt freshman guard received his first start since Dec. 10. He had two early steals and three points as BYU jumped to a 7-2 lead.
Gonzaga went on an 8-0 run after that, gaining its biggest lead.
But the Zags are 7-of-26 from the field and 1-for-9 from 3-point range, including clanks of a lot of open looks.
BYU continues to struggle from long range, 1-for-4, but is still shooting 44 percent from the field — succeeding mostly from inside four feet, which is just fine for BYU these days as it tries to end a two-game home losing streak.
Groundhog Day. Valentine's Day. And every day around it, including this leap year.
Yes, BYU basketball coach Dave Rose loves February. Has to. And he has to hope the Cougar players do, as well, as they venture into the vital month of games.
In his first six years as head coach, Rose has amassed a record of 36-6 at this time of year.
BYU plays host to No. 24-ranked Gonzaga at 9 p.m., a Marriott Center showdown that will be returned to the Zags' homecourt in Spokane, Wash., on Feb. 23.
Consider both great chances to make or break BYU's season, if it isn't already on life support in seeking a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
BYU is coming off back-to-back home losses for the first time since the 2004-05 season, when the team finished 9-21. Gonzaga really needs the win, too, to keep pace with St. Mary's — the Gaels won in Provo last Saturday and have a healthy margin for the regular-season title if the WCC kings can't pull through.
Gonzaga has won every WCC crown since 2001.
The late tipoff time shouldn't take away from a big crowd like the St. Mary's game.
"I expect a great atmosphere. I already see the tents outside lined up," BYU senior forward Noah Hartsock said Tuesday. "That's what is great about BYU fans, they are always coming to the games and always supportive. You know, you are always used to playing late games, because we are college students and we are used to staying up late anyways. So we might as well play at that time."
This February shapes up a little different than the past six. For starters, the Cougars are now in a league without a round-robin quite like the one in the Mountain West. BYU has already lost to St. Mary's twice. It didn't play Gonzaga or Portland in January.
So it'll meet both twice in home/road ventures this month.
Also, the seven remaining games (before the league tournament begins Feb. 29 in Las Vegas) feature what amount to five contests that BYU may not have any issues at all, as Loyola Marymount and SMC are already out of the way.
Then there's the home-and-home with Gonzaga. Winning both would really help the Cougars' cause.
But Gonzaga is no patsy, easily the WCC team most familiar with big-venue environments in recent years.
The Zags return three starters from last year. Like BYU, the experienced post presence should be a large factor.
Gonzaga lost to BYU in the NCAA Tournament last year, but it's hard to compare the teams. Each even sports a freshman point guard now.
You may have been following the NBA career of Jimmer Fredette. Gonzaga lost its starter, Dmitri Goodson, to a college football career at Baylor.
Besides the respective inside games, watch for the point guard play.
Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos may be one of the top five players in the league as well as its best newcomer.
BYU's Matt Carlino, among other BYU guards, will have a chore to contend against a guy who averages 13.3 points, second best to forward Elias Harris.
"I watch Gonzaga every time they're on ESPN," Carlino said. "He can shoot it really well. Quick release, can distribute the ball. He's a freshman like me, so obviously there's going to be a learning curve. But he's solid."
BYU is also very concerned with Harris (13.6 ppg), a 6-foot-7 junior who the Cougars in scout-team preparation have compared to St. Mary's slasher Stephen Holt, who is three inches shorter but averaged 15 points against BYU in two wins.
Rose's team has its work cut out, but the coach won't directly acknowledge the pressure to win now or have the NCAA bid come down to the conference tournament.
"We'll try to handle February like we always try to handle it," he said. "Trying to get better everyday."
BYU only lost one game in the month during each of Rose's first four seasons before losing two, then winning all seven games last year.
According to the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review, WCC commish Jamie Zaninovch (who did not attend the BYU-SMC game) called Cougar athletic director Tom Holmoe about the off-court issues during the loss to the Gaels.
A couple of incidents of fans (basically, the student section) throwing garbage on the floor resulted in a technical foul against BYU. Of course, the bigger issue is the image of the league amid a valuable, nationally televised game.
Holmoe appeared to be irate at the behavior, which included another trash dousing at the final buzzer. He seems to see eye-to-eye with Zaninovich on the issue, though it remains to be seen if tonight will get so ill-tempered.
“The thing I’ve found about this league,” Holmoe told the S-R, “is that they don’t pay lip service to things that really matter. And it’s a privilege, really, to be part of a group that stands for something.”
∫ Jason Franchuk can be reached at email@example.com.
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