Gonzaga locks up WCC crown by sliding past BYU

John Coon, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange


SALT LAKE CITY -- Gonzaga never trailed against BYU from the opening tip. That didn't mean the Cougars made things feel easy for the No. 2 Bulldogs in their 70-65 victory on Thursday night.
Every time the Zags made a few shots to build a comfortable lead, BYU fired right back a series of big baskets to get back in the game.
The pressure didn't get to Gonzaga. This is a team which has been down this road enough times to know which direction it should go.
"They made a bunch of shots in a row," said junior forward Kelly Olynyk. "This place was rocking. You could hear it your ears -- they were ringing. We had to calm ourselves. But we knew we were going to be all right. We knew we believed in each other. We were going to make some plays down the stretch and we just had to go do it."
Olynyk set the example. He scored a team-high 19 points and made a key basket with 42.7 seconds after BYU had cut the Zags' lead to a point. Elias Harris built on that small cushion by hitting three crucial free throws in the final seven seconds to secure the win.
"Every time we've been in that situation, this group has really shown (composure)," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "They've executed. They haven't panicked. They've got the ball to right spot. That guy, whoever it is, steps up and makes plays."
Gary Bell Jr. had 15 points and Elias Harris added 11 to help the Zags (28-2, 15-0 West Coast Conference) notch their fourth straight victory over the Cougars.
Gonzaga also wrapped up the regular season WCC crown. It is the 12th time in 13 seasons they have won at least a share of the regular season championship.
"It's huge for us," Olynyk said. "It's been a goal for us all year, especially after not winning it last year."
Tyler Haws had 19 points to lead BYU (20-9, 9-5) and senior center Brandon Davies chipped in 12 points and 11 rebounds for his ninth double-double of the season.
Gonzaga broke open a tight game early in the second half. The Zags went up 45-36 after Kevin Pangos drilled a 3-pointer to cap a 10-5 run. Then a flagrant foul by Bronson Kafusi on Olynyk turned into a four-point swing that boosted the Zags to a 54-43 lead with 10:51 left.
That set the stage for a huge rally from the Cougars. Brock Zylstra and Haws combined to drill 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions, fueling a 17-6 run that erased Gonzaga's lead. Davies hit a pair of free throws to cap the run and tie it at 60-60 with 4:10 left.
"It was there," Zylstra said. "It was a game. It was anybody's game at that point."
BYU could not take the lead when it mattered, though. Harris hit a free throw and added a jumper to give the Zags a 63-60 lead. Davies answered with a jumper to cut to one again. But Olynyk converted his own jumper and Pangos drained a pair of free throws in the final minute.
The Cougars had one final chance after Haws made three free throws with seven seconds remaining. But Harris wrapped things up from the line.
Gonzaga survived by playing to its advantage in the post.
"It was part of the plan at that time," Harris said. "We tried to get the ball inside and tried to getting to the line."
BYU endured a sluggish start against the Zags' imposing defense. The Cougars missed eight of their first 10 shots. Making matters worse, Davies went to the bench with two fouls at the 17:27 mark of the first half.
"I had stupid fouls coming out," Davies said. "I was really overly excited to play. As you saw, that hurt us. Got to be smarter."
Without Davies on the floor, Gonzaga attacked BYU around the basket and on the perimeter. Bell did the most damage on the outside, hitting three consecutive 3-pointers over a three-minute span to push Gonzaga out to a 23-14 lead.
Davies came back in at the 11:07 mark, and his return gradually shifted momentum back in the Cougars' favor. He hit a pair of free throws and threw down a dunk to spark a 9-2 run to bring BYU to within two at 25-23 with 6:30 left in the half.
The Cougars pulled to within a point with 2:09 left after Matt Carlino put back his own missed jumper to make it 30-29. A pair of shooting fouls by Nate Austin helped the Zags survive the charge. Drew Barham and David Stockton combined to convert five free throws and create a four-point cushion for Gonzaga going into the locker room.
BYU held a 43-39 edge on the boards for the game, but the Zags limited the Cougars to 36.5 percent shooting from the field. BYU also struggled from the line, making just 13-of-22 (59.1 percent) attempts
NOTES: This was just the second game between Gonzaga and BYU in Provo. The Cougars won that meeting last season, 83-73. ... The Zags are off to their best start since 2003-04, when Gonzaga won a school-record 21 straight. ... BYU has the second-longest current streak of 25-win seasons in the country (six), behind only Kansas.