PROVO — Playing a tough non-conference schedule, and having experienced adversity throughout the season, seems to be paying off for BYU.
The Cougars took their lumps in the preseason, losing four games to ranked teams like Iowa State and Wichita State. And in conference play, they've absorbed some painful defeats.
But after putting together two consecutive impressive victories — a road win at Saint Mary’s and Thursday’s 73-65 triumph over No. 25 Gonzaga — BYU has positioned itself for a potential NCAA tournament at-large bid.
In less than one week, the Cougars have won at Saint Mary’s for the first time and have halted a five-game losing streak against Gonzaga.
“I do believe that the experiences we had earlier in the year as a group has put us in some tough situations and we had to respond to it,” said coach Dave Rose. “Their response at times was really good effort, but not a lot of success. Then we had to come out and rely on each other. We’ve been through that quite a few times. If maybe that had been the first or second time trying to deal with that adversity, I don’t know how we would have responded. But these guys are together, they’re bonded together through the rigors of this season.”
Certainly, the Cougars enhanced their NCAA tournament profile by beating Gonzaga.
“Hopefully it helps us,” said guard Anson Winder, who scored 17 points against the Zags. “This was a big win for us against a ranked team.”
So how will the Cougars respond to this recent success?
BYU hosts Portland Saturday (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv) in its home finale. The Cougars will be looking to avenge a 114-110 triple-overtime loss to the Pilots on Jan. 23.
Guard Tyler Haws scored a career-high 48 in that setback at Portland. Against Gonzaga, Haws had just 12 points, but other Cougars stepped up.
Winder, who started against the Bulldogs, had 17 and made all 10 of his free-throw attempts.
“Anson was really special,” Rose said of Winder’s performance.
Meanwhile, Matt Carlino chipped in 15 and Eric Mika added 13.
In the second half, BYU grabbed the lead and held on down the stretch. On the night, the Cougar defense limited Gonzaga to 4-of-18 from 3-point territory.
Bulldog guard Kevin Pangos, who had six 3-pointers against BYU in Spokane last month, was 3-of-9 from the floor with a pair of threes. Gary Bell Jr. was 3-of-11 from the field and 1-of-8 from 3-point territory.
"There were times in that game tonight where I thought we were as active in that zone as we've been all season,” Rose said.
“The emphasis in practice was to guard the 3-point line," Winder said. "That’s how they beat us at their place, they got off a lot of threes.”
Portland’s Bobby Sharp scored a career-high 27 points, including eight 3-pointers, in the Pilots’ overtime win over BYU. In the seven games since then, Sharp has scored a combined 53 points.
The Cougars will also have to contend inside with Portland center Thomas van der Mars, who recorded a double-double with 27 points and 18 rebounds against BYU.
Before beating Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, the Cougars were coming off a difficult loss at Pacific.
“It just shows our toughness. I think we’re a tough team,” Winder said of how his team was able to bounce back. “We’re all competitive guys. We love to win. When we lose, it tears us up. The next time we go out, we’re going to have to try even harder.”
Winder added that he wouldn’t mind playing Gonzaga one more time — in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game.
“That would be big to see them again in Vegas,” he said. “We have a long way to go. To have that matchup in the championship would be fun.”
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company