Hey, no matter what we've done this season, we're sticking together, we're going to believe that we can do something special and that's what we did. —BYU forward Eric Mika
SPOKANE — Against all odds, BYU did it — again.
Battling back from a 16-point deficit early in the game, the Cougars knocked off the No. 1 team in the nation for the first time in school history, upsetting the top-ranked Zags 79-71 at The Kennel Saturday night.
BYU also spoiled Gonzaga’s perfect season and snapped its 23-game winning streak against West Coast Conference opponents.
It marked the Cougars’ third consecutive win here.
Though almost nobody gave BYU a chance to win, the Cougars believed they could knock off the Zags.
“Yeah, I think all of us did. I don’t think a lot of our teams in our conference believe 100 percent that they can do that,” said forward Eric Mika, who scored 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. “All week, we were saying, ‘Hey, no matter what we’ve done this season, we’re sticking together, we’re going to believe that we can do something special, and that’s what we did.”
BYU coach Dave Rose drilled into his team the importance of getting a lead in the second half against the Zags because that hasn’t happened much this season.
The Cougars fell behind 18-2 in the game’s opening minutes and it appeared Gonzaga was well on its way to a 30-0 regular season.
But BYU remained poised and composed and delivered its finest performance of the season.
“It’s just believing. We came in here, and it’s a nerve-wracking game with this atmosphere, with their reputation and their ranking,” Mika said. “But Coach hammered it home that we believe we can win this game. That’s what we do. All the pressure was on those guys. We played our hardest and came through.”
Over the final two minutes, the Cougars made the plays they needed to, including Elijah Bryant’s drive for a layup to tie the score at 71 with 1:52 remaining; a jumper by Mika that put the Cougars up 73-71; some big defensive stops; and Corbin Kaufusi’s putback with 18 seconds left that propelled BYU to a 75-71 advantage.
Mika and Nick Emery each buried a pair of free throws over the final 12 seconds that sealed the victory.
TJ Haws finished with 17 points, including five 3-pointers, and Elijah Bryant had 14 points.
“I believed we were going to win the whole time," Haws said. "We got down a little bit but I’m proud of the way these guys fought. We’re capable of doing that. We stuck together, we shared the ball and we kept fighting all night. In the second half, I felt the momentum swung our way a little bit more. It felt like we were in control.”
Gonzaga went up by 12 with 13 minutes remaining before BYU once again stormed back thanks to a 15-2 run to take its first lead of the game, 61-60, with 8:38 remaining. And Gonzaga was in unfamiliar territory — trailing.
“I talked to our team a lot about how hard it is to do what they were trying to do — to go undefeated at home and undefeated on the season,” said coach Dave Rose. “Those are hard things to do.”
The Cougars finished off the Zags in emphatic fashion.
“In the final three minutes, we told (the players), 'This is for us to take. They’re trying to protect it. Let’s go take it,'" Rose said. "Big, big plays by some guys. Big free throws. Big rebounds.”
Gonzaga took control of the game early, hitting 9 of its first 13 shots and racing out to an 18-2 advantage over BYU. At that point, it looked like the Cougars would be routed the same way the Zags have done it all season long to WCC opponents.
BYU hit only 3 of its first 14 shots and looked shell-shocked. But the Cougars calmed down and gradually the Cougars clawed their way back into the game. Haws hit three consecutive 3-pointers while Mika kept attacking center Przemek Karnowski.
Over an 11-minute stretch, BYU went on an improbable 28-13 run to cut the deficit to 31-30 with 3:33 remaining in the half.
Aiding the Cougars’ comeback was Gonzaga’s struggles at the free-throw line. The Zags made just 7 of 16 from the charity stripe in the first half. BYU wasn’t much better, hitting 2 of 7.
The Bulldogs ended the half on a 3-point play by Nigel Williams-Goss to take a 41-35 lead at halftime.
“Just to be able to get that back to four points on this team in this building, that’s what we talked about at halftime — ‘Look what we’ve done. Look what we can do,’" Rose said. "The last eight minutes of the first half we kind of owned those minutes. It was small pieces and in the end we got the whole thing done.”
In the end, lightning struck for the third time at The Kennel for BYU.
“It’s not easy to do, especially for a team that’s gone through as much as we’ve gone through and for as young as we are,” Mika said. “But we kept believing, we kept fighting and we kept getting better. We came up big tonight.”