It wasn’t the result Cougar fans hoped for when they filled the Marriott Center to capacity Thursday night, but it wasn’t a complete disappointment.
BYU’s basketball team lost 85–75 to No. 1 Gonzaga. It was the first time BYU had ever hosted a No. 1 team in the Marriott Center, but not it’s first time hosting Gonzaga, a rival in the West Coast Conference.
Going into Thursday night’s game, the odds were stacked against the Cougars (16–8, 7–4). Gonzaga (23–0, 11–0) had dominated every conference team it had played this season, and BYU starter and captain Nick Emery was sick with the flu, which limited him to 20 minutes of play. Even BYU coach Dave Rose was honest about how steep of a hill the Cougars needed to climb in order to beat the Bulldogs. The stars didn’t align and the Cougars didn’t execute perfectly, but that’s OK.
“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what made it a little bit different for us,” Rose said. “A lot of it has to do with that Gonzaga’s just a really talented, deep team that keeps coming at you.”
Despite the loss, BYU freshman TJ Haws wasn’t discouraged in the post-game press conference.
“I thought the energy was great tonight and I thought our team showed spurts of greatness.” — TJ Haws, BYU freshman
“I thought the energy was great tonight and I thought our team showed spurts of greatness,” Haws said. “I thought we had moments where we played really hard and we were together. It was a fun atmosphere, but it’s a bummer to lose.”
“Spurts of greatness” — that’s one way describe a game that could be divided into two different games by the two different halfs. The Cougars came out on their heels and quickly fell behind the Bulldogs who came out on the attack. They fell into a deficit of 18 points in the first half and the Cougars went into the locker room at halftime down 42–26.
Not one BYU player had scored in the double digits and the team was shooting a bleak 32. 3 percent, a percentage far off the mark of Gonzaga’s 51.9 percent field goal average.
Then came the second half. The almost redemptive half. The “spurts of greatness.”
Combining hustle with a mindset to compete, the Cougars came to play in the second half. The BYU bigs handled 7-foot-1, 300-pound senior center Przemek Karnowski, limiting him to only 3 points in the second half. Defensive stops resulted in 3 steals and 2 blocks. Offensive confidence translated into 49 points and limited BYU to only 4 turnovers.
And Haws found his stride.
Resisting backing down against the physical Gonzaga defense, Haws continued to drive into the paint. Haws had a career-high 29 points and was 9-of-10 from the free-throw line.
Despite a second half turnaround and closing the gap to just six points in the last two minutes of the game, the Cougars couldn’t channel the final push to take the game from No. 1.
Game loss. Dreams of upsetting Gonzaga destroyed … for now.
Throughout training over the past week, the Cougars had emphasized one thing — compete.
“I think coach instilled a message to compete no matter what the score was, so when we got to the game, it was just natural to continue to compete like we did in practice,” said Elijah Bryant, BYU sophomore.
The Cougars didn’t throw in the towel at halftime and they never stopped chasing down the ball. They accomplished their real goal even if it didn’t translate to a win this time around.
“They competed even when they didn’t play their individual best at times,” Rose said. … “No matter how discouraged they got in individual plays, they continued to compete and play hard. That’s a good sign, especially for a young team trying to figure it out.”
And that competitive edge made a respectable showing for the Cougars. While other teams have been demolished by Gonzaga — losing by an 23.8 point average scoring margin — the Cougars lost by only 10 points.
“This team is getting better every single game,” Haws said. “I thought we had a great week this week in practice. I thought we fought hard. We definitely would have rather had a win tonight, but I think we know we can compete with anyone.”
And you can’t put a price on confidence for a young basketball team.
Good news, Cougar fans, BYU will have another shot at the No. 1 college basketball team in the nation, assuming Gonzaga can maintain the title, in a mere three weeks. And next time BYU will have the wisdom and experience from this loss, confidence they can compete and, hopefully, a healthy Emery to once again take on the Bulldogs.