GLENDALE, Ariz. — Soon after Gonzaga secured its place in the national title game on Saturday night, assistant coach Tommy Lloyd stumbled across the man that handed the Zags their only loss this season.
Lloyd’s reaction wasn’t what you might expect: He shook BYU coach Dave Rose’s hand and thanked him.
Had BYU not toppled Gonzaga in its final regular-season game, Lloyd believes the Zags’ already difficult task Monday night against North Carolina would be significantly tougher. They would have the extra burden of trying to become the first undefeated champion in 41 years in addition to merely taking aim at the program’s first national title.
“Then you’re going to be in the conversation for the greatest team in the history of modern college basketball, which I don’t know if we belong in or not,” Lloyd said. “It’s good that we have that monkey off our back so we can focus on trying to win tomorrow.”
Conversations with a half dozen other Gonzaga players and coaches suggest Lloyd’s comments are representative of how the rest of the Zags feel about the BYU loss.
Yes, surrendering a 12-point second-half lead against a hated league rival was crushing at the time. Yes, it cost Gonzaga the chance to become just the sixth team since 1976 to complete the regular season undefeated. But while the Zags squandered the chance to make history that night, the lessons learned in that upset loss have been crucial to their ensuing postseason run.
“It definitely helped us,” Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews said. “There’s a process we have to winning, and we kind of deviated from it in that game. We’d been so used to crushing teams. In that game, we were up 18-2 early and we got away from what we did to get that lead. That made us realize if we don’t stick with the process, we’ll be in trouble.”
Having beaten every WCC opponent they faced by 10 or more points prior to the BYU game, Gonzaga was unaccustomed to the game pressure it faced after the Cougars rallied to take the lead with nine minutes to play. The Zags responded with quick shots, careless turnovers and defensive blunders, all very out of character for a savvy and experienced team.
The day after that loss, Gonzaga players met in their locker room to discuss what went wrong. Mathews, Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski each spoke during that meeting, urging their teammates to get back to playing unselfishly and aggressively once the postseason arrived.
“I feel like there were a lot of individuals trying to go at each other during that game,” Gonzaga reserve big man Ryan Edwards said. “We didn’t really play as a team very well. We weren’t really ourselves. I left that meeting feeling pretty satisfied. I felt like we were on the same page again.”
Gonzaga didn’t regain its previous form until a convincing WCC title game victory over Saint Mary’s 10 days later, but the Zags used that performance as a springboard into the NCAA tournament. They beat South Dakota State and Northwestern in the opening rounds, staged a late rally to survive West Virginia in the Sweet 16 and clobbered Xavier to advance to the program’s first Final Four.
The poise, toughness and unselfishness lacking against BYU were unmistakable on Saturday against South Carolina. When the Gamecocks erased a 14-point second-half deficit with 16 straight points, Gonzaga responded by seizing back momentum with a quick 7-0 surge of its own.
Now the Zags are 40 minutes from their first national title, 40 minutes from a feat once unfathomable for a small-conference program that never made the NCAA tournament until 1995. One better half against BYU is all that’s separating them from taking an undefeated record into Monday’s title game, but they have no regrets about letting that game slip away.
“I thought it was good for us from the moment the buzzer went off,” guard Silas Melson said. “For one, we experienced the taste of losing. We don’t want to feel that, but it helps. I also don’t think the Sports Gods respect undefeated teams. Wichita State went undefeated. Lost. Kentucky went undefeated. Lost. The Patriots went undefeated. Lost. Everybody is going to take an L eventually. I think ours came at the perfect time.”
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