Gonzaga didn't exactly sprint over the finish line but it got there first, holding off BYU 71-68 in front of a loud, packed house of nearly 19,000 Saturday inside the Marriott Center.
GU (23-7, 15-3) earned at least a share of the WCC title -- Saint Mary's will be co-champions if it defeats USF -- and will either be the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the WCC tournament depending on the Gaels' outcome.
My unedited game story is below. Check back for my day after post in the morning.
By Jim Meehan
PROVO, Utah – Gonzaga built another big lead in another big game. This time the Zags finished, enduring several anxious moments in crunch time.
Good timing, too, as Gonzaga’s 71-68 victory over BYU in front of 18,987 Saturday at the Marriott Center clinched at least a share of the program’s fourth straight WCC title and the 15th in the last 16 seasons.
Gonzaga will be outright champions if Saint Mary’s loses to San Francisco. Gonzaga will be the second seed in the WCC tournament if the Gaels win.
The Zags let double-digit leads slip away in losses to BYU in the first meeting in January and on the road against Saint Mary’s a week later. It looked like they might be headed down a similar path Saturday but they decided enough was enough.
“We needed this because we’ve been in a lot of games like this that we haven’t won,” coach Mark Few said. “Pretty much every one of our losses has been similar to that where we led or were in control pretty much the whole game, other than Saint Mary’s (last Saturday). I’m proud of the guys for that.”
The Zags beat the hottest team in the conference, extinguishing BYU’s five-game winning streak and title hopes in one of the loudest environments in college basketball.
“It was (on edge), that’s what made it so special and big,” senior guard Kyle Dranginis said. “We’ve been preaching all season we have to fight. We did that for a full 40 minutes. We didn’t play well in spurts but we were fighting.”
Kyle Wiltjer produced a game-high 21 points and Few singled out the 6-foot-10 senior’s work on the defensive end. Josh Perkins provided a steady hand at point guard, finishing with eight points, five assists and two steals in 38 turnover-free minutes. Silas Melson chipped in 13 of GU’s 15 bench points.
Domantas Sabonis delivered a handful of clutch plays to help Gonzaga reach the finish line. GU led 60-48 with 9:57 left after a pair of Wiltjer free throws but the Cougars (22-9, 13-5) roared back with eight straight points. Sabonis hit three straight field goals, restoring Gonzaga’s lead to 66-59 with 4:10 remaining.
“I just saw that we were struggling on offense and I had to do something,” said Sabonis, who had 15 points and 13 rebounds for his 19th double-double. “I said, ‘I’m going to try to take over.’ I shot my shots and made them, luckily.”
The Zags needed every one of them as BYU continued to cut into their lead. Zac Seljaas buried a 3-pointer and Corbin Kaufusi made 1 of 2 free throws to pull BYU within 66-63. Melson scored a layup off a Sabonis’ feed but Chase Fischer’s 3-pointer trimmed the margin to two.
Nick Emery, who hit a key 3 late in BYU’s win in Spokane, missed two 3-pointers and Seljaas’ tip-in attempt slid across the rim. The Cougars got another crack when Sabonis was whistled for his fifth foul as Gonzaga attempted an inbound pass with 3.5 second left.
BYU tried to find Kyle Collinsworth in the lane but Perkins poked the ball away. Melson made 1 of 2 free throws and Collinsworth’s desperation 85-foot heave was way short.
“I tried to reach for it, just felt like I got grabbed a little bit,” said Collinsworth, who scored 15 points on 4-of-14 shooting and grabbed 15 rebounds. “I’m sure it was a tough angle for a ref. Their job’s hard, too, just like our job is out there.”
GU trailed by six in the first half when Collinsworth picked up his second foul. The Zags scored 14 unanswered points with Collinsworth on the bench to take a 34-26 lead.
Gonzaga led 38-34 at half despite 11 first-half turnovers, thanks to Wiltjer’s 13 points and Melson’s nine. The Zags only committed two turnovers in the second half.
“I think this win is going to bring us a lot of momentum, perfect for the WCC tournament,” Sabonis said.
The Cougars made just 33 percent from the field, their second worst shooting performance of the season. BYU made 10 3-pointers but needed 32 attempts.