The "Bounce-back Kids" did it again last night.
Welcoming the 24th ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs to Provo for the first time ever, the BYU Cougars rebounded from a weekend home loss to #16/18 St. Mary's with a resurgent 83-73 win over the Zags Thursday at the Marriott Center--a victory that means it has still been more than three years (late January 2009) since BYU last lost consecutive regular season games.
You can hear audio highlights of the win in "Cougar Cuts," left.
In the days leading up to the game, head coach Dave Rose made a starting lineup change for the first time since Matt Carlino joined the team in mid-December, and Rose's decision paid dividends. Starting Anson Winder in place of Brock Zylstra to give BYU some missing bench scoring punch, Rose watched as Winder made an immediate imprint on the game, with three first half steals resulting in some early transition opportunities on which Winder was leading the way. Winder finished with 10 points, four rebounds, five assists and those three thefts in his first start since Dec. 10.
Because of early foul trouble for Charles Abouo, Zylstra entered the game off the bench early, and the (24th) birthday boy responded, playing solidly with four points (2-of-3 FG), four rebounds, an assist and a pair of steals in 25 minutes.
Noah Hartsock followed a 3-for-10 shooting first half with a 7-for-9 clinic after halftime, ending with his third double-double of the season: 24 points and a career-high 14 rebounds.
Brandon Davies (15 points) scored in double-figures for a 13th consecutive game, while point guard Matt Carlino had one of his best and most aggressive games as a Cougar, going for 18 points, 14 of which came in the second half (he played only eight first-half minutes with foul issues). Carlino added five assists and three steals, and dominated his matchup with Gonzaga's freshman point guard Kevin Pangos, who ended up benched for the latter stages of the game.
BYU's three-point shooting slump is still in effect (3-for-12 from distance; 14-for-85 over the last five games), but the Cougars refused to simply cast up long shot after long shot when its inside, driving and transition game was working so effectively. It should be noted that BYU did make two of its final three 3PFG attempts, helping to secure the win.
BYU's work rate was impressive and the key to the game, with the Cougars' defensive intensity and tempo keeping the Zags on their heels all night. A BYU coach told me that "when we play that hard, we're good," and there was no doubting the Cougars' sense of urgency or purpose in what wasn't necessarily a "must-win" game, but sure felt like one.
The Cougars' 14 steals were a season-high, and while Gonzaga was guilty of some sloppiness (19 turnovers; 15 in the first half), much of it was forced by BYU, which recorded 20 assists against 12 turnovers, while the Bulldogs countered those 19 giveaways with 13 helpers.
With the patron saint of hard work--former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan--sitting in a front row, the Cougars put on their hard hats and played in way of which Sloan would be proud, and the result was an effort that puts BYU back in the NCAA Tournament bubble mix.
The 19,257 fans on hand contributed to an atmosphere and energy that gave this regular season game a postseason feel, and it was hard to ignore the sensation that BYU was playing a game that represented more than a chance to improve its conference seeding situation.
BYU needed the win for so many reasons; to stop a two-game homecourt losing skid, to avoid consecutive setbacks that would likely remove BYU from consideration for a double-bye in the conference tournament, certainly for team confidence, but as importantly, it was a win in one of those "statement games."
BYU had yet to beat a ranked team this season, yet to beat a team in the RPI top 50, and had given national college hoops observers reason to doubt the Cougars' NCAA Tournament worthiness. Last night's win in the WCC's Thursday night showcase spot on ESPN2 was an emphatic reminder that Dave Rose's teams tend to play their best basketball when it matters most--in February and beyond--and it is hoped the win over Gonzaga carries substantial weight come Selection Sunday.
BYU now has the chance to get on a roll heading into its season series finale with Gonzaga on February 23rd, with a top two seed in the conference tournament potentially on the line. The Cougars' next win will be their 20th, which would give Dave Rose 20-plus wins in each of his seven seasons, and set a BYU record for most and most consecutive campaigns topping the 20-victory plateau. More important than the win total is that each of the last five seasons has also ended in the NCAA Tournament, and last night's win in Provo was a big step in that direction.
Photo courtesy Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo