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How BYU basketball learned from past mistakes and closed out Gonzaga

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"Coffee Caffeine-free Coke is for closers."

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

On November 25, 2014, the BYU Cougars dropped a heart-breaking basketball game to longtime rival San Diego State in double overtime at the EA SPORTS Maui Invitational.

Despite dominating the first overtime period and seemingly having the game in the bag (they held a five-point lead with less than a minute remaining), a perfect storm of boneheaded plays, bad bounces and missed calls resulted in the Cougars losing their lead — and ultimately, after an uninspiring second overtime period, the game.

The loss was a punch straight to the proverbial gut for any BYU fan, for a number of reasons — because of the acrimonious history with the opponent, because of the missed opportunity to pick up a resume-boosting win against a Top 25 team on a neutral court, because of how inevitable victory had briefly seemed (it was literally snatched from Chase Fischer's fingers), because of how often Cougar fans have had to endure similar collapses in several sports in recent years.

It was a painful experience all around, and I wrote as much at the time. But I also wrote that, even though the loss hurt terribly, it could ultimately be a positive experience for the team and its fans alike if the young Cougars learned from their mistakes against the Aztecs and applied those lessons to future games against similarly tough opponents:

[T]hese are all things that can conceivably be addressed — and the ultimate measure of the worth of this game now hinges on how well Rose and his staff teach those lessons to their team before the next time the Cougars find themselves in a close game with a good opponent.

With several such opportunities on the way in the next month, we shouldn't have to wait too long to find out if the teachers are successful. It just might hurt a bit (or a lot) in the meantime.

Of course, anyone who has followed this BYU team since that point can tell you that things got worse before they got better. We've had to wait quite a long time to see the fruits of those early losses.

There were several more missed opportunities for demonstrated growth in close-out situations: just two days later in another overtime loss to Purdue in Maui, at home against a very good Utah squad and at home against Gonzaga, to name a few in nonconference play. And the late-game malaise even stretched into normally cut-and-dried contests against sub-standard WCC teams, as the Cougars somehow found a way to blow a nine-point second-half lead and lose to San Diego on the road.

You could be forgiven if you were one of the many who wondered out loud if we'd ever truly see the BYU learn its lesson — if this team was even capable of closing out a tight game against a top team. After all, despite a few bright spots here and there, there wasn't much to inspire confidence.

And then Saturday evening in Spokane happened.

The Cougars finally put it all together — and did so at the absolute best of times, in one of the most difficult situations imaginable. Despite leading the game from wire to wire, including a 10-point lead with six minutes remaining, BYU was forced to withstand one last Gonzaga surge in front of a ravenous Kennel crowd who desperately wanted to see their team finish WCC play undefeated.

The Bulldogs came in waves, throwing layers upon layers of exceptional talent and depth at the visiting Cougars over the final minutes. And to be sure, BYU bent a little bit — Gonzaga had whittled the lead down to three and had possession of the ball with six seconds left — but who wouldn't against a team like the Zags in an environment like The Kennel? Some bending under such pressure is understandable.

The most important thing is that the Cougars never broke. Gone were the bone-headed plays that the BYU faithful had been forced to endure in so many previous close games against top teams. Gone was the tentative decision-making and the permanent looks of impending doom etched across the players' faces. And as a result, gone was the pain of watching yet another one slip away.

BYU came to play when it mattered most in Spokane — and every player who saw the floor in those final minutes made a positive contribution, whether it was big or small, without which victory could not have been secured.

Think about Kyle Collinsworth's massive and-one layup and even bigger putback to effectively seal the game. Think about Tyler Haws, laboring through a frustrating night offensively, briefly finding his rhythm midway through the second half to keep the Zags at bay just a little bit longer. Think about Corbin Kaufusi's vicious, tone-setting block on Domantas Sabonis. Think about Skyler Halford's tireless defense and multiple tough jumpshots that killed any nascent Gonzaga momentum before it could fully form. Think about Frank Bartley's smart foul in the closing seconds to send the Zags to the line before they could attempt a potentially game-tying 3-point shot. Think about Ryan Andrus' gutsy free throws to finally put the No. 2-ranked team in the country away for good.

This was a great win and an even greater clutch performance by a team not previously known for its poise under pressure. Was it a perfect performance? No. Do I wish they wouldn't have slowed their offense down quite so much in the closing minutes and risked not getting good looks at the basket? Sure. Things could have gone badly, but they didn't — because the Cougars simply wouldn't let them. There was a focus, a determination and a fearlessness present in these players that simply wasn't there in similar situations earlier in the year.

That, in and of itself, is a mark of the great progress that Dave Rose and his staff have made with this team. It might have taken the better part of the season, but they got them here — in a position to beat one of the best teams in the country in their own building, to peak at the exact right time, and to potentially enter the NCAA Tournament on a hot streak and brimming with confidence. Whether or not they get the chance to realize that last one remains to be seen, but regardless of how the postseason picture shakes out, the Cougars have undoubtedly come a long way since that painful November night in Maui.

They've learned their lessons. They've figured out how to close games against good teams. Now let's see if they can close out their season on a high note.