Following Tuesday’s win over BYU, Gonzaga coach Mark Few was happy in his postgame news conference — not just because the Bulldogs won the West Coast Conference tournament and improved to 26-0, but because they did it after their worst first-half performance of the season.
“We needed a game like that,” Few said. “We had some adversity and got punched in the face.”
Gonzaga trailed by as many as 14 points late in the first half but dominated the second half en route to an 88-78 win to secure the WCC tournament title and an unbeaten record entering the NCAA tournament.
BYU scored 53 points in the opening 20 minutes, shooting nearly 68% from the field and better than 69% from 3-point range.
“They really took the fight to us, especially in that first 20 minutes,” Few said. “We couldn’t stop them. They had us on roller skates. They were outcompeting us and beating us to balls, but also just executing their offense and making big shots.”
The second half was a different story, as Gonzaga played with far more urgency on the defensive end of the floor, which in turn led to more efficient offense at the other end. Corey Kispert hit a couple of big shots early in the second half to cut the lead, and Jalen Suggs took over the game late.
Suggs hit a 3-pointer to cut BYU’s lead to four after the Cougars had pushed it back out to nine with nine minutes left in the game. The star freshman then threw a 50-foot pass to Joel Ayayi for a fast-break layup before blocking a shot two possessions later. Down the stretch, he scored eight points in a 2-minute, 33-second span during which Gonzaga pushed its lead out to nine.
“When the lights are shining the brightest and more people are watching, I always want to go out and make plays,” Suggs said. “More importantly, I wanted to come out with a win. I told Coach with like six, seven minutes left, we’re not walking out of here without a championship. I’m gonna get it done. Coming down the stretch, guys had great confidence in me, they trusted in me. I kept screaming, ‘It’s March! It’s March!’ I’ve been waiting to play in these moments, in March, my entire life.”
Despite trailing for two-thirds of the game, Gonzaga managed to continue its streak of double-digit wins. The streak is now at 23 games — the longest such streak by any Division I team in the past 60 seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
Gonzaga becomes the fifth team to enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten since Indiana went undefeated and won the national championship in 1976. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bulldogs are the 20th team ever to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated; of the previous 19, seven won the title.
Few said his team finally discussed the unbeaten record in the locker room following the win.
“We finally acknowledged this is a big deal,” he said. “It puts us in some incredible company. … It’s a heck of an accomplishment.”
Gonzaga will enter the NCAA tournament as the favorite to cut down the nets, but it will hope to use Tuesday’s game as a wake-up call. BYU was dominant offensively in the first half, scoring at will, finishing easy baskets around the rim and consistently getting open shots. At the other end, Gonzaga’s offense looked stagnant if Drew Timme wasn’t in the game or getting consistent touches in the paint.
While Gonzaga will rarely have an issue scoring points — even in a poor first half, the Zags put up 41 points — the defense dramatically improved after halftime. BYU shot just 27.8% from the floor and made two 3-pointers after making nine in the first 20 minutes.
“Credit to Gonzaga for putting some pressure on us, and I felt like we were trying to manage a little bit of fatigue, a little bit of running out of gas,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “So it was a combination of those two things that I thought was significant. We got some really, really good looks we were really happy with, and the ball didn’t bounce our way a little bit. That’s something that we will improve on and grow on. I felt like our guys executed really, really well, took it upon themselves. … We just couldn’t get the ball to fall. Some really, really terrific looks from inches away and some open looks from 3. Sometimes the game treats you like that.”
Gonzaga knows its Selection Sunday fate already — the No. 1 overall seed — and it won’t see the court until at least the following Friday.
But after Tuesday night, complacency shouldn’t be an issue moving forward.
“I think the best part about it is we’re all excited for it and all happy to keep it going,” Suggs said, “but we’re all ready to get back to work and get ready for Indy.”