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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: BYU shows the rest of college hoops *most* of the blueprint on how to topple Gonzaga

March 9, 2021 Updated Tue., March 9, 2021 at 10:25 p.m.

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Well, there’s your blueprint on how to beat Gonzaga.

No, the Bulldogs didn’t get beat.

But you saw the blueprint.

All the opponent has to do is make every 3-pointer. Never turn the ball over. Use size to bounce the Zags around a little bit. Make more 3-pointers. Control the boards. Get them searching for an answer on defense – press, 1-3-1 zone, something. Make even more 3s. Run up a big lead – 13, 14 points – and make them feel the weight of that unbeaten record, No. 1 ranking and the yearly doubts.

Brigham Young did all that Tuesday night, and more.

And the Cougars still lost by 10. Because there was one thing they left off the grand plan.

How to deal with Jalen Suggs.

Because Gonzaga’s phenomenal freshman likes to think of March as his time even though, you know, it’s his first time.

“Coming down the stretch, I kept screaming, ‘It’s March!’ said Suggs, breaking into something that was part MVP’s laugh and part incredulity that a Madness rookie should be providing the volume and punctuation.

“I’ve been waiting to play in these moments in March my entire life. Tonight it was surreal.”

Glad he said it. Somebody had to.

The 88-78 win over BYU in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game – the 17th in the past 22 years – will look ho-hum on an ESPN score crawl, but it ranks among the wildest the Zags have had to endure.

And even Gonzaga coach Mark Few was moved to lend an authoritative voice to the otherwise amateur chorus out there insisting it was the best thing that could have happened.

“In a sadly sadistic way, I was hoping we’d face this at some point,” he said.

A test, he meant. Actually, two.

The Zags flunked the midterm but aced the final – which in this class, is always 100% of the grade.

You saw it go down. At halftime, the Gonzaga flock was reaching for the rosary beads or the rotgut after the Cougars buried nine 3s, went nearly 9 minutes without a miss and outefficiented and outslicked the nation’s slickest, most efficient offense. Even the online books were lining up against Gonzaga coming back from a 53-41 deficit.

It was so bad the Zags needed two comebacks and not just one.

Corey Kispert, his GPS on the blink in the first half, drilled three 3s to open the second and made two foul shots to pull the Zags even at 57. But the Cougars drew away again, by as many as nine.

And then it was Suggs time. A 3-pointer. A post-route pass to Joel Ayayi for a layup. A flying block. A driving layup. And finally, back-to-back 3s – the second a heat-check from behind a Drew Timme screen that put the Zags up 82-73 and took all the air out of BYU.

“I told coach with about 6 or 7 minutes left, ‘We’re not walking out of here without the championship,’ ” Suggs recalled. “ ‘I’m gonna get it. I’m gonna get it done.’ ”

Lost a bit amid those theatrics were five straight defensive stops by the Bulldogs, featuring the kind of scrambling and recoveries that didn’t exist the first 20 minutes. Plus glasswork – the Zags got 14 of the game’s last 19 rebounds. And Suggs was a part of that, too.

“It’s not just those 3s and finishing at the rim,” Few said. “He made some gigantic defensive plays off the ball that we weren’t making early in the game, when we were a step slow and a step late. He started making those plays off the ball that really got us going.”

As special as Suggs is, we’ve been allowed to see it in only measured doses. He’s a lead player in an ensemble cast with a remarkable governor on his ego. He can live with being upstaged, and the challenges of late have been few.

But …

“You hear the saying forever that big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” he said. “That’s the kind of mentality I’ve always carried. 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 just really want to come out with a win.”

Oh, that.

Yes, the Zags are now 26-0 and will be just the fifth team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated since Indiana ran the table in 1976. Few said that he finally addressed the concept of perfection with his team in the postgame locker room, allowing that being unbeaten to even this point “puts us in incredible company.”

And the players?

“It’s hard not to think about,” Suggs confessed. “We’ve all done a good job of staying focused and playing it a game at a time. But at some point you have to acknowledge how special of a ride we’re on now.”

So special they Zags have even burned the blueprint.

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