Analysis: Jalen Suggs delivers late as Gonzaga claims WCC Tournament title
March 9, 2021 Updated Tue., March 9, 2021 at 10:22 p.m.
All of it – Gonzaga’s spotless record, the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and the West Coast Conference Tournament championship – was on the line in the closing minutes.
Good thing the top-ranked Zags have a closer.
Jalen Suggs had all the answers as Gonzaga stared down its biggest test to date. The freshman point guard carried the Zags to the finish line in an 88-78 win over BYU at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
The second-seeded Cougars put more heat on the Zags than any rival this season, building a 14-point first-half lead and forcing GU to deal with a pressure-packed final 5 minutes.
Suggs hit the pressure release valve with three huge shots – a slashing drive for a short bank shot and a pair of dagger 3-pointers – as the Zags broke away from a tie at 73 with 4 minutes remaining.
“When the lights are shining the brightest and the more people are watching, I always want to go out and make plays, but more importantly I really just want to come out with a win,” Suggs said. “I told coach (Mark Few) with about 6, 7 minutes left, ‘We’re not walking out of here without a championship. I’m going to get it done.’
“Coming down the stretch, the guys kept great confidence in me and trusted in me and the shots were falling.”
Those were some of the most important shots of Gonzaga’s season. The Zags (26-0) are the 20th squad to enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten since the tourney’s debut in 1939. They’re the sixth undefeated squad since Indiana ran the table in 1976.
“We finally, and Jalen can attest to this, acknowledged this is a big deal,” Few said. “It puts us in some incredible company, quite frankly. That (2015) Kentucky team, going back over the years, I think there’s only, you guys know the stats, six teams or something in the last 30 to 40 years.
“It’s really a heck of an accomplishment in lieu of these atmospheres that have been so stale and sterile, and lend itself to defensive efforts like we had in the first half. I give this group of guys just a ton of credit. What a perfect team to go through 2020-21 with.”
Gonzaga’s defense was far from perfect in the opening half. The Cougars buried nine 3-pointers and had a strong inside presence with Matt Haarms, Richard Harward and several guards/wings scoring off dribble penetration.
Sophomore Trevin Knell, who scored six points in the first two meetings against Gonzaga, connected on four 3s and equaled his career high with 15 points by intermission.
The Cougars picked apart the Zags with ball movement, sharp cuts, pick-and-rolls and accuracy from distance. They led by double figures for a sizable portion of the half and took a 53-41 at the break.
BYU’s efficiency took away two of Gonzaga’s primary scoring sources – transition and points off turnovers. The Cougars had just three turnovers in the first 20 minutes and shot nearly 68%, forcing Gonzaga to operate in the half court nearly every trip down the floor.
That changed in the second half. Gonzaga’s defense tightened up considerably, BYU’s open looks dried up and the Zags were the ones getting easier buckets, several in the open court after Cougar miscues or missed shots.
Corey Kispert snapped out of a brief shooting slump with three 3-pointers as GU pulled even at 57. The Cougars seemed to regain control, 68-59, but the Zags scored 12 unanswered points, including a key 3 by Suggs.
“Gonzaga responded in the second half,” BYU senior guard Alex Barcello said.
Suggs led the way with 23 points. Joel Ayayi had 18 points and Kispert 17 as GU’s starters scored 85 of the team’s 88 points. Knell paced the Cougars (20-6) with 20 points.
“We couldn’t stop them. They had us on roller skates,” Few said of the first half. “They were outcompeting us and beating us to balls, but also just executing their offense and making shots.
“I’m proud of us. We needed a game like that. We had some adversity and got punched in the face. We got together at halftime and just got back to sticking with the plan. The guys played fantastic defense in the second half and obviously our offense got going because of our defense.”
Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) takes a shot as BYU forward Matt Haarms (3) defends during the first half of a West Coast Conference Tournament final NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, March 9, 2021, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)Buy a print of this photo
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