In the final three minutes, we told (his team), 'This is for us to take. They’re trying to protect it. Let’s go take it.' Big, big plays by some guys. Big free throws. Big rebounds. —BYU basketball coach Dave Rose
PROVO — Top-ranked Gonzaga was poised to make history Saturday night at The Kennel.
But it was BYU’s turn to make some history of its own.
The Cougars, listed as 20-point underdogs, earned their first-ever victory over a No. 1 opponent with a 79-71 triumph and denied the Zags’ quest to go undefeated for the first time.
So confident were people in Spokane that the local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, had printed up 6,000 copies of a special edition to toast a 30-0 conclusion of the regular season, intended to be distributed to fans at the end of the game.
Instead, the Bulldogs finished 29-1 and those special editions are probably headed for an incinerator. Perhaps the pressure of perfection got to Gonzaga. Over the final 30 minutes of the game, an imperfect BYU team played confident and loose, like it had nothing to lose.
After the final buzzer sounded, frustrated and stunned Zags fans chanted “N-I-T!,” “N-I-T!” at the Cougars as they celebrated on the court.
“That was such a fun game to play in. Holy cow,” said guard TJ Haws, who finished with 17 points. “Their place was loud and their fans were crazy. It was a super-fun environment and I thought our guys just battled all night. It was such a good win for us.”
The victory goes down as one of the biggest in school history.
“BYU deserves a lot of credit,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They played us tough, played us physical, made some big shots and big plays down the stretch and we didn’t. We left a lot hanging out there. We missed a lot of free throws and turned the ball over too much to win a close game like that.”
It wasn’t just that the Cougars won, it was how they won — rallying from an 18-2 deficit in the game’s opening minutes. BYU also trailed by as many as 12 in the second half.
“I believed we were going to win the whole time. We got down a little bit but I’m proud of the way these guys fought," Haws said. "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.”
“Just to be able to get that (deficit) 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,’” said coach Dave Rose. “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 waning moments, the Cougars closed it out in impressive fashion both offensively and defensively.
“In the final three minutes, we told (his team), 'This is for us to take,’” Rose said. “‘They’re trying to protect it. Let’s go take it.' Big, big plays by some guys. Big free throws. Big rebounds.”
Eric Mika scored a game-high 29 points to go along with 11 rebounds. His jumper gave BYU its first lead with 8:38 remaining and another jumper, with 1:05 left, proved to be the game-winner. Mika also had an impressive blocked shot against 7-foot freshman Zach Collins, and he battled with the Zags’ other 7-footer, Przemek Karnowski, holding him to 10 points.
Corbin Kaufusi, who also plays football for BYU, helped defend Karnowski and came up with a put-back with 17 seconds remaining that gave the Cougars a 75-71 advantage.
Haws hit five 3-pointers, including three in a row, to enable the Cougars to rally in the first half.
“We said we needed to take one possession at a time. We got stops and made baskets on the other end,” Haws said of his team’s comeback. “When the first (3-pointer) goes in, the hoop gets a little bit bigger. I tried to stay aggressive, got some open looks and I found my rhythm a little bit.”
When Gonzaga beat BYU in Provo on Feb. 2, the Zags also jumped out to a double-digit lead in the first half. The Cougars pulled to within six points late before losing by 10.
“They went on a heckuva run and they got us down pretty good at our place,” Mika recalled. “I know there were people out there that were cheering for us that didn’t think we’d come back and were hanging their heads. But we didn’t do that the first time we played them and we certainly didn’t do it this time. We stuck together and kept fighting.”
Rose wanted to see his team take the lead late in the game. Gonzaga hadn’t trailed in the second half at home all season.
“That’s a situation where we had some small, little things that we really wanted to do and we thought if we could get to those points we’d have a chance to really do something special,” Rose said. “The way the game started, I didn’t know if we’d get any of those things accomplished. They haven’t had anyone with a lead on them for quite a while. I thought that would be a really big, emotional thing for us and an emotional thing for them to have to respond to it. In the last two minutes, our guys just made big plays.”
Elijah Bryant, who scored a career-high 39 points at Portland Thursday, ended up with 14 against Gonzaga. He also had five rebounds, three assists and three steals against the Zags. Twice Bryant tied the score in the final minutes to help put BYU in position to knock off Gonzaga.
Nick Emery missed his first seven shots Saturday, but buried back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half that kept BYU close.
So this imperfect Cougar team — that had lost to Utah Valley, San Diego and Pepperdine earlier this season; that was playing without two starters, Kyle Davis and L.J. Rose; that had another injured starter, Yoeli Childs, coming off the bench and playing on one ankle; that started one freshman and four sophomores — defeated a previously perfect opponent and pulled an upset for the ages.
As stunning as it was, the scene was familiar. It’s the third consecutive time BYU has left The Kennel with a win over a ranked Gonzaga team. Only this time, the Zags were No. 1 in the nation and seeking their first-ever undefeated season.
But it was the Cougars’ turn to make a little history.