This was supposed to be one of the toughest challenges facing Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference.
It ended up demonstrating the sizable gulf between top-ranked Gonzaga and BYU, picked second in the conference preseason poll. The Bulldogs gave a pretty good indication that might be the case with nonconference wins over four teams ranked in the top 16, three by double digits.
The Zags haven’t lost their edge in the conference season, dusting San Francisco by 23 points last Saturday and routing the Cougars 86-69 – they led by 32 with 11:30 remaining – on Thursday night at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Gonzaga (11-0, 2-0 WCC) dominated from the opening tip against the Cougars, who have been able to practice, but haven’t played since Dec. 23 because of COVID-19 concerns with the first three WCC opponents on their schedule.
The Zags couldn’t have had a better start, which lines up with numerous previous games. They erased most of the suspense by scoring the first eight points and bolting in front 23-2 after the first 7 minutes and 7 seconds.
“We all have a great competitive spirit,” freshman point guard Jalen Suggs said. “We all want to compete for each other, the school, ourselves. It (a 23-2 lead) speaks volumes about how much we’re growing offensively and defensively.”
The offense and defense shared credit for the hot start. Suggs opened with a three-point play and Corey Kispert added the next five points before Drew Timme chipped in a pair of baskets.
The Zags didn’t need much help, but BYU (9-3, 0-1) cooperated with a turnover-per-minute pace early that fueled Gonzaga’s transition game. The Zags ran the floor on missed BYU shots, too, including Suggs grabbing a rebound and the former standout prep quarterback tossing an 80-foot pass to Joel Ayayi for a layup.
“I love throwing passes,” said Suggs, who tossed a 65-foot bounce pass with side spin to Dominick Harris in the win over San Francisco. “Being able to make that kind of play and throw my hands up like a touchdown, it makes not playing football a little bit easier.”
BYU cut Gonzaga’s lead to 39-26 with 3:58 remaining, but the Zags came out of a timeout with a decisive 13-0 run. Suggs fed Ayayi for a layup, hit two free throws and buried a 3-pointer as GU doubled up the Cougars at 52-26.
The Zags’ defense probably gets overshadowed by an explosive offense, but they offered roughly 30 more minutes of evidence that they’re improving on that side of the ball.
BYU had just one field goal in the first 7-plus minutes and shot 33.3% in the opening half. It didn’t get any better in the second half as GU led 70-40 after Andrew Nembhard’s 3-pointer with 14:30 left.
“It was short prep for both teams, but the guys did a really good job with the scout, especially on the defensive end,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. “That’s a potent offensive team, a great guard in (Alex) Barcello, (Brandon) Averette is very good, shifty ball-handler and scorer, and the bigs reminded us of West Virginia with their size.
“I thought we flew around and ball-hawked really well and swarmed to the ball.”
Barcello, BYU’s leading scorer at 16.9 points, couldn’t find open space against a rotation of defenders led by Suggs. The senior guard had one field goal in the first half. He finished with nine points, four coming in the final 2:15.
“I love guarding the other team’s best player,” said Suggs, who finished with 16 points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals. “Some nights the ball may fall, sometimes it won’t, but regardless of how that goes, you always have a chance to impact the game on the defensive end by shutting down the other team’s best player.
“It’s kind of tough to guard him off ball screens, (but) I just tried a couple different things. The guys did a great job of being in gaps and not showing any open driving lanes.”
Kispert scored 23 points, his seventh game with at least 23 points. Timme and Nembhard each had 12 points. Ayayi added eight points and six assists. Anton Watson contributed eight points, eight rebounds and a solid effort defensively.