Earlier in the year, we struggled a little bit from the free-throw line. And Coach has been making us take more and more free throws in practice. I guess it just paid off a little bit tonight. —BYU's Anson Winder
PROVO — The door opened and Anson Winder leaped through with a cape on.
What is the significance of a season-long BYU reserve guard starting against the league’s best team and making 10 of 10 free throws?
Winder was that man Thursday against Gonzaga.
In 26 minutes on the floor, the junior guard looked like the chairman of the board. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t second-guess. He was as confident as the banker holding your mortgage. At the free-throw line, he looked like a cat with canary feathers in his mouth.
"Earlier in the year, we struggled a little bit from the free-throw line,” said Winder. “And Coach has been making us take more and more free throws in practice. I guess it just paid off a little bit tonight."
Frankly, Winder's performance was colossal for BYU coach Dave Rose, who rolled the dice with a lineup change against No. 25 Gonzaga Thursday night. Rose sat 13-game starting guard Skyler Halford and 26-game starting center Eric Mika. He gave Winder his third start of the year as a piece of stratagem, and the junior guard answered.
Starting Winder was a defensive move that directly led to the Cougars' eight-point win over coach Mark Few’s resilient Bulldogs. Winder's free throws were a mighty big part of the victory.
BYU is a team that’s struggled from the free-throw line. Missing free throws has cost the Cougars games — preventing them from finishing important contests and, combined with defensive lapses, has directly led to losses against bad teams.
The Cougars came into Thursday's game ranked ninth out of 10 teams in the WCC in free-throw shooting at 68 percent. Only San Francisco has been clanking more free shots at the line, an exercise in tossing the ball at the rim with the game stopped, clock frozen and every player on both teams standing still.
This is a BYU team that, outside of Tyler Haws (88 percent), has approached free-throw shooting with little focus, only a small sense of urgency, poor technique and little confidence.
At the end of the game, Winder was holding the ball, daring the Bulldogs to foul him. He was begging to get back to the free-throw line and add to his total that included a team-high 17 points.
Winder’s primary responsibility on the night was to shadow Zag star Kevin Pangos, a guy who had a season-high 24 points with six 3-pointers in Spokane, Wash., against the Cougars. Pangos had 13 points with just two field goals from distance Thursday.
It was Winder’s deadeye from the line that kept BYU’s momentum going, rallied his teammates and prevented empty possessions.
Winder came into the game shooting 65 percent from the line, right in the middle of the Cougar pack of average performers from the strip. But like many reserve players, it's hard to get a rhythm, it's tough to get confidence, and it's a real challenge to do anything when your playing time comes in chunks — piecemeal bones thrown your way with little rhyme or reason.
Winder has played as many as 30 minutes — against Mount St. Mary’s — and as few as one minute — against Utah State and Oregon.
Winder only played 13, one, 18 and four minutes in that Rose record four-game losing streak in late December when the Cougars lost at Utah, Oregon, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. He played eight minutes in BYU's loss at Pacific last week but got 16 minutes in the Cougars' rare win at St. Mary’s two days later.
In other words, Winder’s been a calling card, a utility player, and for most of the season he’s been a replacement when Haws needed a rest. That’s not a job that gets you tons of playing time.
But Thursday, he started alongside Haws — on ESPN2 at 9 p.m. MST, prime time in his hometown of Las Vegas.
That fact alone must have lifted Winder’s confidence. How else can one explain a 10-of-10 performance from a 65 percent free-throw shooter? When Gonzaga clustered around Haws, doubled up Kyle Collinsworth, Winder was smart enough to attack the basket and get to the line over and over again. And at the other end of the floor, he played tough defense.
Of his team-high 17 points, 12 came in the second half. Five came in the first two minutes to give BYU an early lead. He set a career high in free throws made and attempted and scored the most points he has in any second half this season.
That, in a nutshell, is what one does when opportunity calls.
Rose opened the door, and Winder about broke his neck racing over the threshold.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.