Once again, the BYU Cougars came up short in a big game.
This time, the Cougars felt the sting of defeat after an intense battle with No. 2 Gonzaga on Thursday. Led by sophomore leading scorer Tyler Haws (20.9 ppg) and a physical effort of Bronson Kaufusi, the Cougars put up a strong fight against a scrappy and arguably more talented Bulldogs team.
Though the Cougars played decent basketball for 40 minutes, the swarming defense and composed offense of Gonzaga proved to be too much to handle as the Zags beat BYU, 70-65.
The Zags, led by leading scorer and All-American candidate Kelly Olynyk (17.5 ppg) and sophomore captain Kevin Pangos (12.5 ppg), responded to the Cougars’ multiple scoring drives with gritty defense and strong inside play, which allowed them to maintain a small lead for the duration of the contest and ensured the Cougars only scored in short spurts.
The Cougars managed to tie the game with only two minutes left, but lost their composure after that point and missed several ill-advised shots with time winding down. The Cougars had a chance to draw close late as Craig Cusick stepped to the free-throw line with 2.9 seconds remaining, but his first free throw bounced off the front iron. Gonzaga followed with free throws and sealed the victory.
Olynyk lived up to his reputation and dominated the paint, going 3 of 5 from the field in the first half and finishing the game with 19 points on 7-10 shooting.
Gonzaga continued to exert complete dominance in the paint throughout the night, but its 3-point shooting performance showed how complete the team is offensively. Andrew Bell, a guard with a season average of just over eight points per game, showed his range against BYU, hitting 3 of 5 from beyond the arc in the opening 12 minutes of the game and finishing 4-8 from 3 with 15 points. Sam Dower, another guard for Gonzaga, went 3 for 3 from the field and finished with eight points.
Meanwhile, Haws managed to connect on clutch baskets when the Cougars needed them most and finished the game 8-18 from the field with 19 points. But his team’s failure to rally around his late scoring drive only added to the offensive inefficiency. The much-anticipated matchup of Haws versus Pangos felt anticlimactic as Pangos struggled mightily with his jump shot throughout the game, connecting on just two shots from the field, and 1-12 from beyond the 3-point line — though Pangos would knock down two free throws to finish off the game.
The Cougars played well at times, but foul trouble continued to be an issue — especially with star post player Brandon Davies. The senior center was forced to leave the game early in the first half after picking up his second personal foul — making it necessary for coach Dave Rose to summon Kaufusi from the bench, a player known more for his accomplishments on the football field than the basketball court. Bronson brought the ferocity of the football field into the Marriott Center, but his overaggressive play left him little time on the court to push around Olynyk and the rest of Gonzaga’s post players.
Though the Cougars have historically played well against difficult opponents on their home floor, Gonzaga came in without fear or anxiety and took advantage of the Cougars' weaknesses. The hour is late for the Cougars, and with the WCC tournament drawing near they will have more questions to answer in the coming days and weeks. They proved Thursday night that they can play with one of top-ranked teams in the country, but playing away from home in a hostile environment will be the true test for a BYU team that has struggled to finish off close games in 2013.
Kyle Hunt provides instant analysis for the Deseret News' BYU sports coverage. He holds the position of Web Content Manager at Fusion 360 advertising agency in Salt Lake City, Utah.