It looked like No. 1 Gonzaga was going to treat BYU the same way it treated its first 17 WCC game this season.
Gonzaga went in front 18-2 and yet another double-digit victory was taking shape – all on Senior Night in front of a roaring crowd of 6,000 Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center as the Zags tried to put the finishing touches on the first unbeaten regular season in program history.
And then it flipped. BYU pulled it together at both ends of the floor and closed within six at halftime.
GU temporarily rebuilt its lead to 12, but the Cougars wouldn’t go away. They clawed ahead with 8:35 left – just the third time this season GU trailed in a second half and the first time since Pacific on Dec. 31. It was back-and-forth the rest of the way.
The Zags haven’t been in a white-knuckle game in a while and it looked like it.
Gonzaga turned the ball over, couldn’t make free throws, couldn’t get defensive stops and watched BYU make all the key plays in the final two minutes.
The Cougars dug out a 79-71 win, spoiling GU’s Senior Night and its bid for a perfect regular season.
“Nothing in practice is exactly like the game, including end-of-game situations,” junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “Obviously, we haven’t been in that situation. I don’t think we executed as well as we could have. We have to learn from it and get better going down the stretch.”
In the final 2 minutes, Gonzaga gave up a driving layup to Elijah Bryant, an open jumper to Eric Mika and a putback to Corbin Kaufusi.
At the offensive end, the Zags misfired on a good look in the lane before sophomore guard Josh Perkins committed turnovers on the next two possessions.
“There were some breakdowns we had at the end,” senior guard Jordan Mathews said. “We missed a box-out, we should have made our free throws. Those came back to bite us tonight.
“The season’s not over. It is a great season. I know every other team would love to be 29-1. We’d love to be 30-0, but we’re 29-1. Go back to the drawing board on Monday.”
Gonzaga’s defense, a cornerstone throughout the season, yielded 44 second-half points. Mika, BYU’s sophomore center who was held in check in Gonzaga’s 85-75 win in Provo earlier this month, broke loose for 29 points and 11 rebounds.
The Cougars had 12 offensive rebounds and a 15-8 edge in second-chance points.
“Our defense in the second half wasn’t the best,” GU senior center Przemek Karnowski said. “We based our team on defense this season and that’s what we took pride in. We just have to get better defending 1-on-1, help-side, rebounding. Everything.
“Mika was hitting shots. We decided not to double and (Collins) and J3 (Johnathan Williams) had to deal with him 1-on-1. He’s a good player and he was hitting those tough shots.”
Mika had company as freshman guard TJ Haws buried five 3-pointers and scored 17 points and Bryant, in addition to playing solid defensively against Williams-Goss, chipped in 14 points.
“Obviously, we didn’t play defense up to the level we should be playing,” junior guard Silas Melson said. “It’s all on us. The coaches threw everything out there that we needed to know, we just didn’t execute it.
“We let Haws get hot in the first half, we can’t do that. We let Mika expose us. It was self-explanatory.”