BYU really had just one good half in them against No. 6 Gonzaga.
It was fun for the capacity Marriott Center crowd for a while. The Cougars were flying around the floor making 3-pointers, converting three-point plays and challenging the Zags on every possession to cut a 14-point deficit to two late in the first half.
But it couldn’t last.
Gonzaga clinched the West Coast Conference regular-season championship with a 79-65 victory in front of 18,987 BYU fans on Saturday, its 21st title in a league it dominates like your big brother in the family room Nerf basketball game.
The Zags came out playing like a Top 10 team to start the second half and the Cougars couldn’t begin to match that level of play in their own gym, where Gonzaga is 5-2 and has won the past four meetings. It’s that kind of consistency that allowed the Zags to win 24 straight WCC road games.
Johnathan Williams scored 16 points, Zach Norvell Jr. 15 and Josh Perkins 14 to lead six players in double figures for Gonzaga (17-1 WCC, 27-4 overall) in a remarkable display of versatility and depth.
BYU — already locked in to the No. 3 spot in next week’s WCC Tournament regardless of the outcome — was looking for an upset to earn some much-needed confidence.
Instead they got a lesson on just how far they are from challenging the Zags in a meaningful way.
“They hit shots and we couldn’t,” BYU junior guard Elijah Bryant said. “It’s pretty much plain and simple. We had open shots, they just weren’t going down.”
Gonzaga played at a very high level early, and BYU couldn’t match it. The Zags made 10 consecutive field goals at one point, shredding the Cougar defense both inside and outside to claim a 26-12 lead on a Killian Tillie 3-pointer at the 11:07 mark of the first half.
Somehow, BYU fought back into the game. Bryant started to find the range and the Cougars went on an 8-0 burst — a 3-pointer by Dalton Nixon and a Bryant 3-point play included — to close to 26-20 with 8:43 left. Gonzaga responded quickly and led 32-20 on a Silas Melson triple, but BYU wasn’t done yet. Bryant scored eight straight points, including back-to-back 3-pointers, to pull within two at 38-36 with 2:10 left in the half.
BYU assistant head coach Tim LaComb — who handled the post-game news conference for Dave Rose (stomach flu) — said the Cougars were encouraged by their big first-half run.
“We thought we competed with them in stretches,” LaComb said. “They had several guys step up and make big plays. That’s what championship teams do. We were happy with moments in the first half. There were a couple of times where it could have gotten away but the guys showed a lot of character to get it back. We had a good chance to be up at half.”
A 3-pointer by Bryant that would have given the Cougars the lead rattled in and out and BYU failed to even get a hand up on Perkins’ 3-pointer to beat the buzzer, which gave Gonzaga a 43-38 lead at the break.
Bryant paced BYU in the first half with 13 points and Jahshire Hardnett scored 10 before picking up his third foul. The Cougars shot 48 percent (15-of-31) from the field and made 6-of-12 from the 3-point line.
Things went off the rails pretty quickly in the second half.
BYU shot a miserable 1-for-8 to start and Gonzaga eased to a 10-point lead just four minutes in. The rest of the half was about the same: The Cougars with an ineffective offensive possession and Gonzaga spreading the ball around to get an easy shot on the other end. The biggest second-half lead for the ‘Zags was 21 (69-48) with 9:03 to play and BYU never made a move to get any closer than 14 points.
“We talked about it, it was kind of crazy,” Lacomb said. “Sometimes you really look forward to the half, sometimes it’s tough and you really wish you could keep playing. We came out tentative (in the second half), they executed well and they made some tough plays.”
The Cougars were just 7-for-26 (27 percent) from the field and 0-for-8 from the 3-point line in the second half.
Childs led BYU with 19 points and eight rebounds. Bryant finished with 16 and Hardnett 11 for BYU (11-7, 22-9).
The Cougars will be in Las Vegas next week for the WCC Tournament and will play San Diego in a Saturday quarterfinal.
“Ready or not, right? Here we go,” Lacomb said. “It’s a fun time of year, for sure. You work all year long to put yourself in a position for this. We’ll see if we can make some noise. We’re looking forward to the postseason.”