PROVO, Utah – The question: When is the last time Gonzaga trailed in a game?
The answer: Saint Mary’s, 32-31, late in the first half on Jan. 14.
That was six games and 13 halves ago. A span of 264 minutes and 31 seconds, to be exact.
BYU was supposed to challenge No. 1 Gonzaga on Thursday. Students slept in tents for three nights to reserve the best seats. The Marriott Center was packed with nearly 19,000 fans, the Cougars’ first sellout of the season.
And after a rough first half, the Cougars did exactly that. They put heat on Gonzaga throughout the closing 20 minutes. The crowd reached ear-splitting volume levels.
None of it ruffled Nigel Williams-Goss. The junior guard put the top-ranked Zags on his shoulders and carried them to the finish line as Gonzaga held off the Cougars 85-75.
He said it was so loud he couldn’t hear himself think, but he soaked up the noise, the energy and put on a show in the final 15 minutes.
“It’s fun, it’s what you live for,” Williams-Goss said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy coming in, not in this building. We just had to stay together. We consider ourselves a really tight-knit group and in environments like this it pays off.”
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Williams-Goss poured in 11 straight points in one stretch. He scored 24 of his 33 points in the second half. His team needed every single point he delivered to withstand numerous BYU comebacks in the second half.
“The kid is just a winner, a flat-out winner,” coach Mark Few said. “Obviously this is when you need him on a big stage in a really tough environment when you’re hitting a bunch of adversity.”
Williams-Goss hit some adversity of his own. He rolled his ankle in the first half, but it didn’t slow him down during the game.
“It’s kind of hurting now, but I’ll ice it and hope it doesn’t swell up too bad,” Williams-Goss said.
BYU went to a 1-3-1 zone defense in the second half and it slowed Gonzaga’s offense. So Williams-Goss took matters into his own hands.
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He drove into the lane for his patented floaters. He swiped the ball from BYU center Eric Mika and converted an acrobatic left-handed layup at the other end. He dropped a 3-pointer and made all five of his free-throw attempts.
“I just felt like we had some lulls out there, a few bad possessions in row when we weren’t getting good looks or turning the ball over,” Williams-Goss aid. “I just tried to be more aggressive.”
The third-place Cougars have had an up-and-down season, but they’ve played their best basketball on their home court, compiling a 12-1 record prior to Thursday.
Down 16 at half, the Cougars kept the pressure on, cutting the deficit to single digits on several occasions and getting within six points late.
“We hit some adversity,” Few said. “We haven’t hit adversity very much. We hit some tonight, and we didn’t cave.
“We weren’t perfect but you’re not going to be perfect in a high possession game like this. They’re running a 1-3-1 (zone) and it takes you out of rhythm. But we responded.”