PROVO — It was simple act of role-playing.
No. 6 Gonzaga left the Marriott Center Saturday night King Kong of the West Coast Conference, a perch head coach Mark Few has enjoyed for what seems like forever after dispatching BYU 79-65.
BYU, however, absorbed the beating as a third-place team, ending things the way many expected.
The 27-4, 17-1 Zags played like a well-oiled machine. BYU (22-9, 11-7) had a few good, competitive spurts but, in the end, succumbed to a program that has dominated the WCC like no other.
“They just tend to make the right play,” said BYU assistant coach Tim LaComb.
The Cougars now head for the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas next weekend in the exact position as many expected before this senior-less team kicked off the season last fall.
They’ll be the No. 3 seed behind Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, likely facing San Diego. They won 22 games, which is one game better than KenPom.com predicted before the season began. They had some great moments, enough to look impressive and really did improve in many ways. But, in what appears to be a ceiling, BYU still found ways to lose to San Diego, Loyola Marymount and Pacific, considered lower-tier teams in the league.
Said LaComb, “This is a team that was picked to be third in this league by people who are in the league and kind of understand what is going on and didn’t know we’d be missing a few key players. I thought our guys fought really hard. There are nights you’d have wanted back a shot back here and there but they held their heads guy and stayed together. We have good kids.”
It is true. BYU is a squad that could have had 25 wins with a little imagination and more effective three-point shooting from very capable shooters who are not Elijah Bryant. That, in a capsule, is how the Cougars head for the Orleans Arena.
Gonzaga beat BYU in the regular season finale because Bulldog Cadillac players made more scoring runs, played more efficient with higher confidence, shot better from inside and out and had fewer mistakes.
Led by Johnathan Williams’ 16 points and Zach Norvell’s 15, the Zags got 12 from Silas Melson, 14 from Josh Perkins, 12 out of Rui Hachimura, and Killian Tillie added 10.
In short, the Zags played like a No. 6-ranked team is supposed to and outshot the Cougars 55 percent to 39 percent from the field.
BYU was the No. 3 seed in Las Vegas regardless of a win or loss and played like it.
The Zags had six players in double figures, twice that of the Cougars with Jahshire Hardnett 11, Bryant 16 and Yoeli Childs 19.
“We couldn’t get shots to fall down in the second half,” said Hardnett, who scored an early 10 points without which the Cougars would have been blown out in the early minutes after tipoff.
The Cougars, at times this season played very efficient with possessions, head to Las Vegas needing more efficiency, consistent scoring and more confidence. That will be the challenge for Dave Rose’s coaching staff the next six days. His team is missing shots, a lot of them wide-open looks.
“We just got to hit shots and get ourselves in a better position,” said Bryant.
“We just have to hit more shots,” said Hardnett. “We have to have a greater sense of urgency.”
LaComb said Gonzaga centered a lot of their defense in stopping TJ Haws, who has hurt them in the past. “They were very physical and knocked him off his spot, did a good job on him.”
When league seasons end in a loss and some struggles, the best approach is to throw it all away and sell players it is a whole new season beginning next Saturday where three straight wins will deliver an NCAA berth.
It’s a good pitch. But this BYU club will need a lot of work, and it needs a major boost in confidence.
“We’ll go into the tournament and see if we can do some damage, ready or not, it’s a fun time of year. We’ve worked all year long to get in a position for this,” said LaComb, who said he likes to hit reset on his PlayStation when things don’t go well.
BYU needs a reset.