Questions asked. Questions answered.
That was the script Tuesday night for the final of the West Coast Conference Tournament. Brigham Young supplied the impetus, building a double-digit lead before halftime. Then the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs supplied the denouement, getting back into the game quickly, falling behind again but climaxing it all with Jalen Suggs’ award-winning performance in the last few minutes.
The final answer? The Zags will head into the NCAA Tournament with an unblemished record after the 88-78 victory at the Orleans Arena.
Which led to one more question, this on courtesy of Sean Farnham, analyzing another game from ESPN headquarters.
“Now the question is this:” he said as the game ended, “Do they have six more in them?”
What they saw …
• Why the questions? Mainly because of a first half that was different than any the Zags (26-0) had played all season.
Their defense wasn’t clicking and BYU (20-6) was taking advantage. It was almost as if the team in royal blue was the top-ranked squad. For 20 minutes it was.
“That’s confidence right there,” Farnham proclaimed after another BYU 3-pointer. “Dave Flemming, BYU has come to play tonight. BYU isn’t afraid of No. 1. BYU has decided that tonight. They’re playing free. They’re playing aggressive and they’re playing with rhythm and pace early in this game.
“What a start for the Cougars.”
For most of the half, BYU shot better than 70% from the floor. At one point the Cougars had hit 8 of 11 3-pointers. That’s 72.7% .
That’s when Seth Greenberg, watching from ESPN headquarters in Connecticut – probably not too far from where Farnham was sitting – stated the obvious. But sometimes that’s the only thing to say.
“They have to find a way to disrupt the tempo in this game,” the former coach said of the Bulldogs, “with their defense, not their offense.”
They couldn’t before halftime. Mark Few tried their three-fourths-court trap. He tried a 1-3-1 zone. He tried switching the Cougars’ ball screens. Nothing got BYU out of its rhythm. The Cougars, according to Farnham, averaged 1.7 points per possession.
“They did everything and anything they wanted on the offensive end of the floor,” Farnham said as the second half began.
• The past couple of days, Greenberg has had a few questions about the top-ranked Zags. He wondered at halftime if one of them would be answered in the next 20 minutes: whether Gonzaga could handle the stress of a tight game, something it hasn’t experienced in 2021.
“We’re going to find out a little bit about Gonzaga because this is real game pressure against a team that’s finding it very easy to make shots, make plays,” he said. “This is going to be a challenge for them and it will be good for them moving into the NCAA Tournament.”
The answer came quickly.
When Corey Kispert, who was abysmal on offense in the first half, hit two free throws with 6 minutes, 11 seconds left, the game was tied at 57. BYU fought back and built a nine-point lead with 9 minutes left. With 4 minutes left, it was tied at 73. Then Suggs scored a layup and Joel Ayayi hit a free throw. Then Suggs finished off the Cougars with back-to-back 3-pointers.
“How about Jalen Suggs in this moment,” Farnham said after his first, with 2:19 left and from 24 feet. “You want to know why he’s so high on the draft board? He makes huge plays, both ends of the floor.”
Suggs’ second came less than a minute later and right after Farnham said, “I would go right back to him.”
They did. He answered.
“Stop it, Dave,” Farnham yelled after another long 3-pointer gave GU an insurmountable 82-73 lead. “Are you kidding me? The will of Jalen Suggs.”
“There are moments when he’s just different,” Flemming said at one point.
“The question mark was this: How would Gonzaga respond?” Farnham added a few seconds later. “What makes this team different this year is a player like Jalen Suggs. He has take-over-the-game abilities and he has shown that in the last couple of possessions.”
What we saw …
• Effort, and a smart plan of attack, can take a team a long way. BYU proved that in the first 20 minutes. It wasn’t just Gonzaga’s defense that was exposed. It was the Cougars are capable of doing if they play at their peak energy level.
“BYU has come out and, boom, smacked (Gonzaga) early,” LaPhonso Ellis said from the studio. “They’re running their cuts harder, they’re rebounding harder.
“Gonzaga has retreated a little bit and (the Cougars) been able to knock down nine (3-pointers) in the first half.”
That effort helped BYU build a 12-point halftime lead, something GU hasn’t experienced this year and a number they’ve only faced five times in the past decade. That was according to a graphic ESPN showed early in the second half.
Of the previous four, the Zags had lost them all. That changed.
• Gonzaga’s upgraded second-half energy output including much more physical play, something the Cougars didn’t appreciate. And it led to a couple of moments that could have led to something ugly. It didn’t because Verne Harris nipped it in the bud.
The veteran official used a rare weapon in the referee’s arsenal, the double foul.
Usually, the call is the result of an inability to make a decision. But when Gideon George and Corey Kispert collided under GU’s hoop with 10:39 left, just seconds after George had scored over Kispert and flexed, Harris assessed a foul on each. It seemed to cool everything down. And set up a great finish.
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