BYU made their debut in the West Coast Conference championship game Tuesday night, facing off against the Gonzaga Bulldogs who they split games with during conference play. Unfortunately the Cougars couldn't do enough to win and lost 75-64. It's usually been a standing appointment for Saint Mary's and Gonzaga to play in this championship game, but BYU took care of business during the season to grab the second seed for the tournament and won their first two tournament games.
The Cougars started sluggish out of the gate after a late game last night that went into overtime and lasted until 11:00 local time. The win against San Francisco the previous evening did a lot to bolster the hopes of an at large bid to the NCAA tournament, but an automatic bid would help the Cougars rest easy until the selection committee determines their fate. BYU had a number of quality wins on the season, but the most recent games play a large factor in helping or hurting the chances of getting selected. BYU didn't need to win tonight, but they did need to make a solid showing.
The game started quickly with both teams pushing the tempo eager to get out and run. Gonzaga was able to dominate down low on both ends with their starting front court. Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski got a number of blocks on defense and made a bunch of easy layups. To make matters worse, Gonzaga started off hitting their first three shots from behind the arc and jumped out to an early 16 point lead halfway through the first half.
Gonzaga executed much better than the Cougars in the first half and had 11 assists on 44 points and hardly missed; everything just seemed to go right for the Bulldogs who shot 61% from the field. BYU simply did not take care of the ball and gave it away 10 times in the first half, which resulted in a lot of points for Gonzaga.
BYU finished the first half with only 27 points, the second-lowest points scored in the first half this season. Gonzaga played really solid team ball and BYU played really poor isolation ball, the difference was a 17 point Gonzaga advantage.
The second half didn't start out much better for BYU who committed three fouls (two on Mika) in the first 45 seconds and suffered an injury to Nate Austin who had to go to the locker room to get checked out. He eventually returned to the game. Luke Worthington came in and played great defense on Dower, who lit BYU up in the first half, and continues to earn minutes. It's curious that Rose didn't start the freshman Worthington against Gonzaga's bigs to save Mika from foul trouble, which had been working so well over the last few games.
Halford came in and promptly missed a three badly and then had the ball stripped. The junior transfer has not played well for quite a few games. Rose has been giving him a chance, but Halford just hasn't performed well. Frank Bartley needs to be getting those minutes. The freshman has much more upside and ability to contribute in more ways.
Collinsworth had perhaps one of the best plays in the tournament after finishing a huge dunk, but suffered a knee injury on the very next play and had to be helped into the locker room. In a show of good sportsmanship both fan bases gave him a standing ovation as he left the court. Collinsworth has been the most consistent BYU player over the last few games and the Cougars simply could not afford to lose him.
Oddly enough, perhaps inspired by Collinsworth's injury, BYU went on a 10-0 run to cut the lead down to 10. There is a lot of fight in this group and they played inspired basketball for a few minutes, but Gonzaga hit a few back breaking threes with time expiring on the shot clock. Still with 7 minutes left in the game, BYU was only down 10 points.
BYU finally cut it to single digits with a Frank Bartley three pointer with four minutes remaining and momentum was completely on the Cougar's side. After being down by 21 points at one point, BYU refused to give up. Tyler Haws continued his hot streak of free throw shooting and was perfect from the line with 11 free throws and 22 points, but it wasn't enough in the end. Sam Dower played great for the Zags and finished the game with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
BYU will wait to find out their fate for the NCAA tournament, but you have to believe the Cougars have a great shot of getting in. The Cougars will also wait to see the status of Kyle Collinsworth who didn't return to the game, but could be seen sitting on the end of the bench with ice on his knee. The committee will announce the teams selected for the tournament this coming Sunday.