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NCAA Tournament: How do you beat 32-1 Gonzaga? Only BYU knows

Published March 15, 2017 4:22 pm

Everything came together on a Saturday night in Spokane, Wash., for BYU.
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Provo • Who put the 1 in Gonzaga's amazing 32-1 record and almost cost the Zags a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?

That would be those mercurial and unpredictable BYU Cougars, who will be watching intently Thursday as their West Coast Conference mates begin their quest for that elusive first-ever appearance in the Final Four. Gonzaga faces South Dakota State at high noon in Salt Lake City's Vivint Smart Home Arena, about 45 miles north of the Marriott Center.

The 22-11 Cougars stunned then-No. 1 Gonzaga 79-71 in Spokane on Feb. 25, quieting The Kennel for the third consecutive year and adding to their reputation as one of the most puzzling squads in college basketball in 2016-17. Nine days later, BYU was humiliated for the third time by Saint Mary's, another WCC club that will play Thursday in SLC, against VCU. Gonzaga still received a No. 1 seed, while the 28-4 Gaels got a No. 7, a bit of a slam considering three of their four losses were to GU.

So pay attention, Jackrabbits. Lend us an ear Northwestern and Vanderbilt, Gonzaga's possible foes on Saturday. Sorry, Rams of VCU, go back to pulling off impressive comebacks. We've got nothing for you here.

Clearly, the Cougars know how to beat the Zags. Against SMC, they haven't a clue.

Speaking of making things clear, BYU players and coaches said to a man after practice Tuesday night as they prepared for Wednesday's NIT first-round game against UT Arlington that they would love nothing more than to see the Zags and Gaels go far in March.

"We are rooting for them," BYU center Eric Mika said. "Anytime a WCC [team] gets a shot in the tournament, we are hoping they do well and represent our conference well."

The Cougs did share some pointers on how to beat Gonzaga, after some prodding.

BYU coach Dave Rose said "the most important thing is to try to get a couple of their guys out of the game," and somehow get guys such as the 7-foot-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski, the ultra-talented Nigel Williams-Goss or explosive Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams to have subpar outings, as they did against BYU 23 days after holding off the Cougars 85-75 in the Marriott Center.

"And you gotta be able to spread them out a little bit, because when they get in a rhythm with their offensive sets and a rhythm in transition, they are just really good. They've got so many weapons and so many guys. But probably what I would honestly say is the key is hopefully you catch them on a bad night."

Indeed, it was Gonzaga's worst offensive performance of the season. The Zags made just 3 of 16 3-point attempts, a season low for makes and shooting percentage from beyond the arc. They were 1 of 10 from deep in the second half.

Also puzzling was how a team that shot 74 percent from the free-throw line in other games could miss 13 of 29 attempts against the visiting Cougars.

"What did it for us is we just kept fighting [after falling behind 21-3]," Mika said. "They come out in all their games generally playing pretty well, and they will get the lead. But if you can hang around and just keep it close, like coach Rose kept saying the week leading up to it, then maybe that will challenge them."

Indeed, Rose said immediately after the game that the more BYU hung around against a team that hadn't been challenged in more than two months, the tighter the Zags got. Coach Mark Few picked up a technical foul for screaming about a no-call, but the Zags didn't respond well as nearly 6,000 disconsolate fans looked on.

"Yeah, but that is probably not as big a deal now as it was then, because they had so many games where they were undefeated and they hadn't been behind," Rose said Tuesday. "The conference tournament, it tested them pretty good. So I think they are even better now than they were two or three weeks ago."

While the Zags were struggling, the Cougars got sensational games from Mika (29 points, 11 rebounds) and freshman TJ Haws (5 of 9 from 3-point range for 17 points) and perhaps the best and most significant defensive play in school history, Mika's stuff of Zach Collins' two-handed dunk attempt. And the Cougars hit nine 3-pointers, the second-most against GU all season. Tennessee had 10 vs. the Zags on Dec. 18.

"We played extremely well in many different areas," Haws said. "Gonzaga is a tough team. You just have to play hard for 40 minutes and hope the shots go in and you get stops. But they are a very good team and I hope they do well in the tournament."

Another key was that Mika was able to hit some outside shots and draw Karnowski away from the basket, allowing Elijah Bryant to make some slashing drives to the hoop without fear of getting his shot blocked and football star Corbin Kaufusi to make the biggest shot of his life, a putback with 17 seconds left that pushed BYU's lead to four.

Mika's best advice to the NCAA Tournament field isn't possible.

"Go out and find a 7-foot-3, 300-pound European in the next week," he said. "That would help."


Twitter: @drewjay —

How BYU stunned Gonzaga

• Cougar center Eric Mika shot 10 of 14 from the field, 9 of 13 from the free-throw line, and scored a game-high 29 points

• BYU hit 9 of 24 3-pointers (37.5 percent), well above its season average of 28.6 percent

• The Coug held the previously undefeated Zags to 3 of 16 shooting from 3-point range; Gonzaga also made just 13 of 29 free throws

• BYU held the Zags to a season-low eight assists and forced 16 Gonzaga turnovers

NCAA Tournament

Thursday's games

At Vivint Smart Home Arena

• No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 South Dakota State, noon.

• No. 8 Northwestern vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt, 2:30 p.m.

• No. 7 Saint Mary's vs. No. 10 VCU, 5:20 p.m.

• No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 15 North Dakota, 7:50 p.m.

Saturday's games

• Gonzaga or S.D. State vs. Northwestern or Vanderbilt

• Arizona or N. Dakota vs. Saint Mary's or VCU.






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