PROVO, Utah – Gonzaga senior forward Elias Harris couldn’t hear a thing in the din of nearly 20,000 fans at the raucous Marriott Center on Thursday night.
But he was thinking clearly, and so were his teammates.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs stated their case for the No. 1 ranking in college basketball by doing what they’ve done for most of the season. They defended, took care of the ball and came up with clutch baskets. Kelly Olynyk had another solid game. GU’s bench contributed 18 points.
On this night, though, it was the second-ranked Bulldogs’ poise down the stretch that delivered a hard-fought 70-65 victory over BYU.
“I couldn’t hear my own words,” said Harris, describing the volume level as BYU fought back from an 11-point deficit to tie it at 60 with 4:18 remaining. “That’s how 20,000 people sound. But at the end of the day, on the court only 10 people play the game. They’re going to root for the home team, but we just stuck together as a unit.”
And the Bulldogs got help elsewhere. Earlier in the week, No. 1 Indiana lost to Minnesota. Shortly before Gonzaga tipped off against BYU, Virginia’s upset of No. 3 Duke went final, clearing a path for Gonzaga to the top spot with a win over the Cougars and another against Portland on Saturday.
The Bulldogs (28-2, 15-0 WCC) got the first win, holding off a late BYU charge to clinch an outright WCC championship. The Bulldogs haven’t been in a ton of close games, but for the most part they’ve handled tense environments.
“Every time we’ve been in those situations this group has executed and they haven’t panicked,” coach Mark Few said. “We get the ball to the right spots and whoever it is steps up and makes a play, whether it’s Gary (Bell Jr.), Kelly (Olynyk), Kevin (Pangos), Elias (Harris) or ‘Stocks’ (David Stockton).”
GU never trailed and led 54-43 with 10:50 remaining, but the Cougars pulled even at 60 with three straight 3-pointers – two by Brock Zylstra and Craig Cusick’s 3 just before the shot-clock expired – and a pair of Brandon Davies free throws.
Harris powered inside for a basket to give Gonzaga a 63-60 lead, but Davies connected on a putback. It remained that way as BYU missed four field-goal attempts and GU had a turnover, an errant 3-pointer and a missed free throw. Finally, Olynyk drained a 10-footer for a 65-62 lead.
BYU (20-10, 9-6) misfired twice and Mike Hart grabbed a defensive rebound in traffic. Kevin Pangos, who made only 1 of 12 3-point attempts, buried two free throws and Gonzaga’s lead was 67-62. Cusick made three free throws and Harris hit 1 of 2 foul shots to keep GU in front 68-65 with 6.6 seconds left.
Gonzaga opted to foul before BYU could attempt a tying 3-pointer. Cusick missed the first free throw and Harris made two free throws to seal Gonzaga’s 11th consecutive win.
“The situation was right and the seconds were right,” Few said. “Everybody wants this stock answer, but it depends on what the situation is.”
Olynyk finished with 19 points. Bell hit four 3s and scored 15 points. Gonzaga made a season-low 41.5 percent of its shots. The Bulldogs attempted a season-high 30 3-pointers as BYU’s zone concentrated on taking away GU’s inside game.
“That just shows what our team is all about,” Pangos said. “We kept grinding the whole 40 minutes. We never let up, even through the ups and downs.”
Tyler Haws scored 19 points to lead BYU, which made only 36.5 percent from the field.
Harris insisted that the rankings are the last thing on his mind.
“The only thing I’m thinking about is my Senior Night against Portland,” he said. “I’m not worried about anything else. Everything else is your guys’ jobs, the media guys.”