For our first “Throwback Thursday,” let’s remember BYU’s second-round NCAA win against Gonzaga in 2011 which sent the Cougars to their first Sweet 16 since 1981. That might be why the opening lines to my column sound a little giddy: I was my first time, too.
A couple of things come to mind when I’m thinking about the time and place.
Jason Franchuk was our BYU basketball beat writer at the time and I was the columnist, which allowed me to throw in a lot of my own opinions and personality into the piece. I was also reminded that Chris Collinsworth was injured and missed most of the 2010-11 season, eventually retiring from basketball. Sure, the suspension of Brandon Davies late in the season was critical and probably kept BYU from advancing past the Sweet 16. But had Collinsworth been healthy all year he could have filled the role of an interior defender and rebounder very well.
Ah, well. Here’s some happy reading during troubled times:
DENVER — I’m road-tripping to N’awlins next week.
Who’s with me?
This column will be written with the distinct flavor of gumbo and Cajun rice.
Somebody tell the folks on Bourbon Street to stock up on Sprite and caffeine free Diet Coke.
Cougar Nation and some mad-talented ballers are invading the Big Easy.
And they’re not slipping in unnoticed. They’re coming in hard and fast, dropping in 3-pointers, Jimmer Fredette spinning his crossover dribble, Jackson Emery thieving every ball in sight.
BYU’s stunning 89-67 victory over Gonzaga in Saturday at Pepsi Center to earn its first trip to the Sweet 16 since in 30 years left a lot of college basketball fans wondering: Where did this come from?
Let the players tell you.
Noah Hartsock: “I think we had a great practice (Friday), a great shoot around this morning. Just really focused. The team was talking to each other, how we were going to approach the game. We played hard for 40 minutes. We executed.”
Fredette: “We still have a great team. We can all shoot the ball. It’s tough to stop us, especially when everybody is hitting on all cylinders. Then we defend the way we do.”
Emery: “I think the most important thing is that we believe in ourselves. We’ve gone through a lot of challenges this year, a lot of adversity. The most important thing is what we believe in that locker room.”
So it didn’t matter than the Cougars had struggled to find their groove since losing Brandon Davies to suspension. It didn’t matter than most of the nation was picking Gonzaga, a No. 11 seed, to beat BYU, the three seed.
Could you blame them? On Thursday, BYU never could seem to put away No. 14 seed Wofford before winning by eight. Then Gonzaga went out and destroyed St. John’s from the Big East, putting on a shooting and rebounding display on its way to a 10th straight victory.
The college basketball world doubted BYU, but on Friday and Saturday, the Cougar coaching staff and players put in the work that would make believers of them all.
“I believe in preparation,” BYU head coach Dave Rose said. “We got a chance to practice for an hour and a half in the arena on Friday. We got 30 minutes in the arena today. I think that was really important.
“When you rely on jump shots as much as we do, being comfortable in this environment, in this arena, I think really helped us.”
Boy, howdy, did it ever. BYU came out hot and hit nine 3-pointers in the first half. Emery, Fredette, Hartsock all found the range early. Then it was Stephen Rogers, who had scored a total of nine points in the past six games, scored 10 in 10 minutes in the first half. James Anderson probably needed oxygen after playing 16 minutes in the first half but the 6-foot-10 junior battled and played well.
Gonzaga players were stunned. THEY were the team on a roll, THEY were the team that had dispatched St. John’s. Who were these guys running circles around them?
Frankly, the Cougars hadn’t played this well since beating San Diego State in Viejas Arena on February 26.
“It was a game where we knew that we had to play together,” Rose said. “We had to play with confidence. We had to play on attack. I thought for 40 minutes, we might have been as good as we’ve been all year.”
Rose said the team needed time to adjust to life without Davies on the floor, and it all came together Saturday night in Denver.
Rose was asked about the fan support in the post-game press conference, and that did it. He started with, “Well, you know, it’s been a long time for our ...” then he paused as emotions took over. After 10 of 15 seconds of silence, he finished with “And I’m happy, really happy for them. I’m happy for our players, happy for our coaches, our administration. I mean, everybody is in this. We’re all in this together.”
It’s been that kind of a season, filled with milestones and knock-your-socks off performances.
One special moment after another.
As the final seconds melted away in Denver, We saw a familiar scene: BYU backup guard Nick Martineau dribbling out the clock as the Cougars racked up another win.
The difference this time is the Cougars are going on to the Sweet 16.
How y’all getting there?