Douglas C. Pizac-USA TODAY Sports
Dramatic performances by seniors Brock Zylstra, Craig Cusick, and Brandon Davies gave BYU a shot to topple one of the nation's best teams, but the Cougars couldn't quite get the job done in a 70-65 loss.
BYU doesn't just lose basketball games. They always seem to find a way to do it in the most dramatically painstaking way possible, if only to maximize their fans' personal displeasure. Or at least that's what it seems like on nights like these.
The Cougars fought valiantly against No. 2 Gonzaga, scratching and clawing back from a double-digit second half deficit to tie the game with just over four minutes left to play. Unfortunately, the home team couldn't get the buckets to fall or the bounces to go their way when they needed them, eventually falling to the Zags by a final margin of 70-65.
This was an ugly game throughout, and not because there was a surplus of turnovers. (Both teams actually took pretty good care of the ball, combining for just 15 total giveaways.) The shooting was completely horrendous on both ends, with the Cougs and Zags shooting 37 percent and 42 percent from the floor, respectively. What's more, each team also shot a mediocre 59 percent from the free throw line, none of which is a recipe for beautiful basketball.
The first half was dominated by bad offense, as both teams struggled to score the ball. BYU stayed close by remaining active on the offensive glass, turning 8 offensive rebounds into a handful of second-chance points, and they trailed by only four at the break. Even after all the poor shooting, there was some reason to be optimistic about the Cougars' chances to make an actual game of it.
Those hopes dwindled severely during the second stanza. Gonzaga came out and punched BYU in the mouth, going down low to their skilled big men early and often to devastating effect. Dave Rose tried several different unorthodox lineup configurations in the hope of finding something that would work against the brawny Zags, but nothing seemed to stick. As the game got more and more physical (and boy, did it ever — Bronson Kaufusi nearly killed a man with his bare hands twice), the Cougars seemed to get more and more frustrated. As a result, the visitors grew their lead to 11 points with 10:51 remaining.
And then Rose finally found a lineup that clicked. Facing a make-or-break proposition, the coach chose to rely upon his seniors, playing their last regular season home game, to give BYU a spark. The gamble worked. Going with a lineup featuring three "bigs" in an attempt to match up with Gonzaga's size down low, shots started falling — Brock Zylstra hit a couple big threes, Craig Cusick drained a deep three with a hand in his face as the shot clock expired, and Brandon Davies went to work on the block to put the game back within reach. Just like that, the momentum in the arena changed, the crowd came alive, and all of the sudden Provo had an old-fashioned barnburner on its hands.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. After tying the game at 60 with 4:18 left, BYU went on a deathly cold streak, missing eight of their last nine shots and failing to convert on several opportunities to take the lead. Tyler Haws personally went 0-for-5 during this stretch, despite playing an otherwise solid offensive game. He (and basically every one of his teammates) was unable to get a friendly roll from the rim when it mattered most, and he watched several great looks flutter in-and-out of the basket. The Cougars simply could not buy a bucket for any amount of money.
To be sure, there were other significant roadblocks to success afoot. Despite enjoying a healthy rebounding advantage in the first half, BYU allowed the Zags to grab six offensive rebounds after the break that turned into 11 second-chance points. Somehow, the ball seemed to repeatedly careen directly into the hands of someone in a blue jersey at every important junction. Add in the fact that they missed nine free throws on the night, including the front end of multiple one-and-ones down the stretch, and there's no shortage of reasons for why the Cougars' furious, senior-driven comeback came up just short.
And you know what? As much as it hurt to lose yet another close game to a good team, I could not be more proud of how these kids battled, persevered, and hustled. They left it all out on the floor in this one, especially those three seniors who may never get the chance again. So while my heart feels like it has just been put through the theoretical meat grinder for the umpteenth time in the last few months, I am still finding it difficult to be too upset with the evening's result.
Sure, it would have been preferable to win. BYU certainly had their opportunities to do so and failed to seize them. But dwelling on the woulda-shoulda-couldas, at this point in the season where the team's postseason destiny is all but sealed, seems unnecessary. It was a joy to watch those kids out on the Marriott Center floor one more time, giving their all for their team. They ran into a better team and they lost, but they didn't quit and they fought until the final buzzer sounded — and sometimes that is all you can ask.