Gonzaga seemed to improve with each WCC tournament game, starting with a quarterfinal victory over San Francisco, the strong second half against Pepperdine and a 40-minute effort against a tough BYU squad in Tuesday's title game.
My unedited game story is below. Colin Mulvany's photos can be found here.
By Jim Meehan
LAS VEGAS – For all the chatter nationally about unsightly, low-scoring games this season, we offer the 40-minute thrill ride that was Gonzaga-BYU.
The Cougars love to play fast. The Zags like to play fast, too, but they also love to throw the ball into their talented posts and let them go to work.
Seventh-ranked Gonzaga had most of its multiple weapons firing and mixed in some tenacious defense for a 91-75 victory in front of a record crowd of 8,585 Tuesday at the Orleans Arena. GU picked up its third straight WCC tournament title, the last two over BYU.
“It never gets old,” said senior Gary Bell Jr., one of six Zags to reach double figures. “I’m just glad I got to do it with my brothers.”
Gonzaga (32-2) matched the 2013 team for the most wins in program history. A one seed is probably a stretch but the Zags strengthened their chances of landing on the two line and likely a short trip – Seattle or Portland – for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.
BYU’s eight-game winning streak, one of those an impressive 73-70 victory over Gonzaga in Spokane 10 days ago, was snapped. The Cougars (25-9) are squarely on the NCAA bubble.
Gonzaga, outplayed and lacking fire 10 days ago, was full throttle for the outset, taking a 19-10 lead after a 10-0 run. Kyle Wiltjer dropped seven of his team-high 18 points in that stretch.
“We didn’t want to get outworked again,” said Wiltjer, who showed no lingering effects from Saturday’s hip injury. “We learned a lesson.”
There was no quit in the Cougars and no shortage of answers from the Zags. Gonzaga led by nine on six occasions in the first half but the Cougars, led by 6-foot-6 guard Kyle Collinsworth, rallied each time. He had 17 of his 28 points in the opening half, but that was offset by the trio of Bell, Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis combining for 35 points.
Gonzaga led 48-42 after a frenetic first half – the Zags’ highest scoring first half since hanging 57 on St. Thomas Aquinas. Both teams actually shot below their season averages – GU 48.5 percent and BYU 38 percent – but made up for it at the free-throw line. Both teams had 11 points at the stripe.
Gonzaga’s interior game put the Cougars in early foul trouble. It got worse for the Cougars when the Zags went to 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski on numerous possessions early in the second half. He made repeated trips to the free-throw line and tossed in a couple of jump hooks.
“I got two quick fouls and had to sit on the bench,” said Karnowski, who finished with 12 points. “I reset my mind and just went out and tried to pick up as many fouls (on BYU) as I could, I think seven in 2-½ minutes. That’s a pretty good thing.”
The foul pressure left the Cougars scrambling and unable to cover Gonzaga in the lane. Sabonis shook off a slow start to finish with 15 points and six boards. Gonzaga had a 34-20 edge in point paints.
Gonzaga compounded BYU’s defensive issues by draining 8 of 12 3-pointers, three each by Bell and Wiltjer and two by Pangos.
BYU, second nationally in scoring at 83.8, managed just 33 points in the second half
“We got back to playing the way we’ve played the majority of the season,” coach Mark Few said. “Attacking on offense and being tough as nails on defense, directing shots and getting after it on the glass.”
The Zags couldn’t shake BYU but the Cougars never caught up. They were within 54-52 when Karnowski powered inside for three straight baskets. The Zags opened up an 11-point lead on Sabonis’ layup with 10:48 left but BYU stayed within striking distance at 76-69 on a pair of Skyler Halford free throws.
Kyle Dranginis, a major contributor in all three tourney games, drove for a left-handed finish and GU pulled away in the closing minutes.
Wiltjer was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. He joined on the All-Tournament team by Pangos, Karnowski and BYU’s Collinsworth and Tyler Haws.