Gonzaga, as always, was fabulous.
BYU was fabulous-er.
It takes a supreme effort on both ends of the floor to beat the second-ranked ’Zags and so few teams get to experience that feeling. The No. 23 Cougars created a memory for the ages on Saturday in a sold out, delirious Marriott Center.
Yoeli Childs scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in BYU’s rock-the-house 91-78 victory, but he was hardly the only hero.
Jake Toolson made 5 of 9 from the 3-point line and scored 17 points. T.J. Haws finished with 16 points and eight assists. Zac Seljaas scored 12 points and his steal from the seat of his pants that led to a Toolson 3-pointer in the second half ignited an already dialed-in ROC section that filled their part of the arena two hours before tip.
All seniors, doing magical things on Senior Night.
The Cougars led by as many as 14 early in the second half, withstood a furious Gonzaga rally that cut the lead to two and pulled away at the end with some critical defensive possessions.
The real MVP? Maybe it was the BYU fans who were deafening throughout the game and created the kind of intensity that hasn’t been seen in the MC since the Jimmer days.
Just call BYU coach Mark Pope – who won his 100th game on Saturday — a prophet: In October at the team’s Midnight Madness event, he actually had the ROC practice rushing the court after a big victory.
“Is there a better atmosphere in college basketball than right here?” Pope asked those fans after the game.
On Saturday, the answer was probably “no.”
“We battled tonight,” Toolson said. “We really laid it all on the line. The message is pretty consistent this year. All the guys on the team want to fight for each other. This shows how we can play. We can win when we’re playing together and fighting for each other and we can win against the best teams in the country.”
BYU (12-3 WCC, 23-7 overall) led by eight at halftime, 46-38. The most points the Zags had given up in the first half this season was 43 to San Francisco in a win last month.
Kolby Lee busted a 3-pointer with 16:58 to play for a 58-44 lead but Gonzaga got out in transition and crept back into the game. A basket by Drew Timme trimmed the deficit to two, 70-68, with just over nine minutes remaining.
Instead of folding as most teams do against the ’Zags, BYU responded. With under five minutes to play Alex Barcello hit his only basket of the game – a 3-pointer from the corner — for an 82-74 lead. The Cougars scored on four straight possessions to finally put Gonzaga away. Haws pulled up for a 3-pointer, Childs scored inside, Seljaas made a pair of free throws and Connor Harding fed Childs for a two-handed slam.
On the other end of the floor, BYU’s defense got serious and held the ’Zags to just one field goal in the final four minutes.
Childs’ dunk made it 89-76 with under a minute to play and the dream that Pope began with back in November became reality.
All that was left was for Pope to call time out in the final 20 seconds to insert injured senior Dalton Nixon to dribble out the shot clock.
Cue the 18,987 in the Marriott Center to rush the court.
“That was unbelievable,” Childs said. “Just the fight that we had. I try to be in the moment but this team has such big goals I can’t help thinking how encouraging this is for the future. Gonzaga is a great team. They made a run with great players making great plays, but nothing they did slowed us down.”
Gonzaga (13-1, 27-2) shot 28 free throws (making 23) and consistently got the ball inside to Filip Petrusev (14 points) and Killian Tille (18). Corey Kispert was terrific (16 points) and the Bulldogs outrebounded the Cougars 24-13 in the second half.
But Gonzaga simply wasn’t going to catch BYU.
It was the Cougars first win over the ’Zags in Provo since 2014. The victory also broke Gonzaga’s 39-game road conference winning streak.
“This is really humbling, because these guys have gone through so much and it doesn’t always work like this,” Pope said. “It was one of those special moments in sports and it’s not going to be our last.”