DENVER — For 30 years, BYU has wandered, and languished, in the NCAA Tournament wilderness.
On Saturday, the Cougars finally reached the college basketball Promised Land — the Sweet 16 — in resounding fashion.
Thanks to torrid 3-point shooting, No. 3-seeded BYU eliminated No. 11 Gonzaga, 89-67, in an NCAA Tournament third-round game at the Pepsi Center.
The Cougars buried 14-of-28 3-pointers, including seven by star guard Jimmer Fredette, who finished with a game-high 34 points.
After the game, the legions of BYU fans celebrated the historic victory.
"It's been a long time for our fans," said coach Dave Rose, choked with emotion. "I'm really happy, really happy for them. This is a special team. I'm really pleased that they'll be rewarded with continuing on in this tournament."
BYU now advances to the Sweet 16 in the Southeast Region semifinals Thursday in New Orleans against No. 2-seeded Florida, which defeated UCLA earlier in the day.
A year ago, BYU knocked the Gators out of the tournament with a first-round, double-overtime victory.
"The Sweet 16 is something so special. It's been one of our goals all year," Fredette said. "We haven't been here for the last 30 years. This is an accomplishment in itself. We're really looking forward to being able to play against Florida and have that opportunity to hopefully get to the Elite Eight."
Facing a confident Gonzaga team that had won 10 consecutive games, and had reached the Sweet 16 five times since 1999, the Cougars knew they needed a strong team effort.
"I think that we had to play our best game in this situation," Rose said. "Gonzaga was on a great streak. It was a game where we knew that we had to play together. We had to play with confidence. We had to play on attack. I thought for 40 minutes, we might have been as good as we've been all year."
While BYU shot 52 percent from the field, Gonzaga shot just 42 percent, including 2-of-9 from 3-point range.
"We had a great practice (Friday), a great shootaround (Saturday) morning," said forward Noah Hartsock, who was 5-for-5 from the field and 3-for-3 from the 3-point line despite playing only two minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. "Just really focused. We played hard for all 40 minutes. We executed. That's really what helped us."
"We can all shoot the ball," Fredette said. "It's tough to stop us, especially when everybody is hitting on all cylinders."
BYU got off to an impressive start as Hartsock and Jackson Emery each knocked down treys early, then the Cougars continued their deadly shooting barrage from long distance.
"I take a lot of pride in setting the tone," said Emery, who nailed three 3-pointers and finished with 16 points. "Jimmer is going to demand so much attention because of the player he is. But the most important thing is, his supporting cast hit shots. Not only I, but Noah, Stephen and the rest of the guys did a tremendous job of being aggressive."
The Cougars ended the first half with nine 3-pointers, including four by Fredette, to take a 45-38 lead at intermission.
"They were just falling tonight," said Fredette, who was 11-for-23 from the floor and 7-of-12 from 3-point territory. "Sometimes that happens. You have off-nights, then you come back and have good nights. I just felt good tonight. I was fortunate to make some shots."
In the opening minute of the second half, Fredette drilled yet another 3-pointer as part of an 11-2 run that propelled BYU to a 56-40 advantage.
The Bulldogs cut the deficit to eight with a little more than 12 minutes remaining in the game before BYU slammed the door on the 'Zags by scoring 12 unanswered points, capped by a pair of 3-pointers by Fredette and Hartsock. At that point, the Cougars were up, 75-55, a lead that increased to as many as 24.
Fittingly, Hartsock nailed one last 3-pointer with a little more than one minute remaining, touching off chants of "Sweet 16! Sweet 16!" from the pro-BYU crowd.
Gonzaga simply had no answers for Fredette and the Cougars.
"He can shoot it out just about anywhere, as soon as he steps on the floor," said Bulldog guard Steven Gray of Fredette. "We just didn't have recovery to the other guys, let other guys hit threes, that just spreads you out even more, just opening the lanes up for him. When they're all hitting like that, it just spreads the defense."
Gonzaga coach Mark Few praised the Cougars.
"They were the far better team today. They shot the ball extremely well. We did not play as well as we've been playing down this stretch, especially on the offensive end with the turnovers. Just kind of some rushed shots," Few said. "BYU deserves a lot of credit for that, getting their hands on a lot of balls, just stepping up and making big shots, timely shots. Without a doubt, when they shoot it that well, I mean, they're a handful."
And this handful called BYU is heading to the Sweet 16.
Jimmer Fredette factor
BYU possessions: 67
Jimmer offensive touches: 50124 comments on this story
Jimmer plus plays (points or assist): 20
Jimmer negative plays (turnover or miss): 15
BYU plays with no Jimmer touch: 17