Cougars can’t keep up with Zags in tournament championship loss

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BYU's Skyler Halford, Jake Toolson, and Corbin Kaufusi scramble for the ball with Gonzaga's Byron Wesley in the West Coast Conference tournament championship. (AP Photo/John Locher)
BYU’s Skyler Halford, Jake Toolson, and Corbin Kaufusi scramble for the ball with Gonzaga’s Byron Wesley in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS — The Gonzaga Bulldogs snapped BYU’s eight-game winning streak 91-75 in the WCC championship game Tuesday night, keeping the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament hopes in question for the time-being.

“Our guys played with a lot of energy, a lot of fight and a lot of determination,” BYU head coach Dave Rose said. “We just weren’t able to come out with a victory tonight.”

The Bulldogs beat BYU in the final for the second straight year. It was Gonzaga’s 12th tournament championship in the past 16 seasons.

As for BYU’s March Madness prospects, Gonzaga coach Mark Few is confident the Cougars will get in.

“Hats off to BYU,” he said. “They’re playing great basketball right now, and there’s no doubt they’re an NCAA tournament team.”

Two passionate fan bases packed the stands for what would be the highest-paid attendance in Orleans Arena history. Hours before game time, fans were paying as much as $85 just to enter the arena and stand at the back. The emotions seemed to carry over to the court, with both teams struggling to find any kind of rhythm in the opening minutes.

Kyle Collinsworth scored BYU’s first seven points as he traded buckets with the Bulldogs early on. A Kevin Pangos three at the 14-minute mark put Gonzaga ahead by one, but Skyler Halford answered with a triple of his own to excite BYU’s fans and retake the lead.

The Zags then suddenly became hot from deep. Kyle Wiltjer and Gary Bell Jr. hit back-to-back 3-pointers as part of a 10-0 Gonzaga run that put some distance between the two teams.

The Cougars clawed their way back to within three twice before the Zags closed out the half leading by six, 48-42.

Tyler Haws played only 3:29 into the game before hitting the bench with his second foul.

“It’s frustrating,” Haws said. “You’re just trying to be aggressive, and it’s unfortunate to get two quick ones. I tried to just stay aggressive and help out any way I could.”

He would come back six minutes later to score seven points in the first half.

Collinsworth led all scorers with 17 at halftime, with more than half of those points coming from the free-throw line. The teams combined for 24 fouls and 31 free throws before the break.

The Cougars closed the Gonzaga lead to two in the first four minutes of the second half, but the Bulldogs started getting the ball to their 7-foot-1, 288-pound center, Przemek Karnowski. He scored nine points and drew six fouls on BYU’s big men in just under five minutes.

“You never know what kind of game it will be, if you’re going to get touch fouls down low or on the perimeter,” Collinsworth said. “Unfortunately their bigs had big nights and overpowered us down the stretch.”

The turning point in the game came with 11:33 to go, when Wiltjer blocked a Haws three-point attempt. Haws then knocked the ball out of bounds, and BYU coach Dave Rose received a technical foul for arguing the call. Pangos made both free throws to stretch the Gonzaga lead to 10.

“(Rose) coaches with a lot of passion, and he wants to win worse than anyone,” Haws said. “That fires our guys up a lot, and I thought our team played with a lot of passion tonight.”

The Cougars never gave up, staying within single digits until the final four minutes. But Gonzaga was able to withstand BYU’s comeback attempts, thanks to seven Pangos points near the end of the game.

Collinsworth finished with a game-high 28 points, while Gonzaga had six different players in double-figures.

“They’re a good team,” Rose said. “The Zags are one of the best teams in the country, and I think we gave them a pretty good fight.”

Rose also counts himself among those who still like BYU’s chances to make the Big Dance.

“There’s a committee put together that’s going to decide this,” he said. “If they’ve watched us play, I think they’ll feel pretty good about putting us in there.”

Halford suffered a lower-leg nerve contusion in the last minute and had to be helped off the court without putting any weight on his left leg. The Cougars will wait until they return to Provo to further evaluate his prognosis.

At the end of the game, Haws, Collinsworth, Pangos, Karnowski and Wiltjer were named to the all-tournament team, with Wiltjer receiving the tournament MVP honors.

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