BYU stuns Gonzaga, sets sights on WCC tournament

Young Kwak
BYU guard Nick Emery smiles in the second half against Gonzaga. The Cougars defeated the No. 1 Bulldogs 79-71. (AP Photo)

The 79-71 upset of Gonzaga marked the first ever win over a No. 1 team in BYU men’s basketball history.

Before the Feb. 25 upset, the Cougars were 0-5 against teams ranked No. 1, including an 85-75 loss to Gonzaga earlier this month in the Marriott Center.

“It was a team effort,” forward Eric Mika said. “We know what we are capable of. We haven’t shown it all year, but we showed it tonight.”

Mika finished the night with 29 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.

He also became the 49th player in BYU history to score 1,000 points after his first successful free throw attempt at the 17:37 mark in the second half.

BYU shot 38 percent from the 3-point range and 45 percent from the field while outscoring the Bulldogs in second chance points (15-to-8) and points off of turnovers (20-to-13).

“We played hard and stuck together,” coach Dave Rose said. “We had to amp it up on both sides of the court and it payed off.”

The Cougars’ defense held Gonzaga to 19 percent shooting from 3-point range and forced 16 turnovers, including nine steals.

“These players will remember this for a long time,” Rose said. “It was a great team win. I’m just really happy for this young group to take advantage of this opportunity on a national stage. Tonight was a good way to end this regular season.”

BYU basketball finished the regular season 21-10 and 12-6 in WCC play.

WCC tournament preview

The focus for the team now shifts to the conference tournament that begins this week in Las Vegas at Orleans Arena.

Tournament play hasn’t been kind to the Cougars in Las Vegas.

The only time BYU won a conference tournament there was in 2001, when the Cougars defeated Air Force, Wyoming and New Mexico to win the Mountain West Conference tournament at the Thomas and Mack Center.

But this year’s tournament couldn’t come at a better time for a BYU team that knows it needs to win to go dancing.

“It’s an interesting spot that we are in,” Rose said. “We all know that we need the automatic qualifier to get into the NCAA tournament.”

The win over No. 1 Gonzaga secured the No. 3 tournament seed for the Cougars, which pits them against No. 6 Loyola Marymount for their quarterfinal game on Saturday, March 4, at 2 p.m. MST.

That No. 3 seed could be vital to BYU as they avoid any possible rematch with Gonzaga until the championship game.

BYU won both regular season games against LMU this year, with a comeback 81-76 victory in Los Angeles and an 85-77 win in the Marriott Center.

Joining BYU’s half of the bracket is No. 2 Saint Mary’s. The Gaels will face the winner of the first round game between No. 7 San Diego and No. 10 Portland on Saturday at 10 p.m. MST.

The Cougars and Gaels have never played each other in the conference tournament. Saint Mary’s won both games this season against BYU and is 8-4 against the Cougars since 2011.

The upper half of the bracket pairs No. 4 Santa Clara and No. 5 San Francisco and No. 1 Gonzaga play the winner of Friday’s No. 8 Pepperdine vs. No. 9 Pacific game.

The quarterfinal winners will face off in the semifinals on Monday, March 6, with those winners advancing to the championship game on Tuesday, March 7.

Should the Cougars advance to the championship and face Gonzaga, it would be the fifth time the two teams have met in the WCC tournament. The Bulldogs have eliminated BYU from the tournament each time they’ve met, with last year’s meeting ending in an 88-84 victory for Gonzaga in the semifinal round.

If BYU fails to win the WCC tournament and secure the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that accompanies the title, the Cougars will most likely make a second-consecutive appearance in the NIT.

Last season’s NIT run ended with a 72-70 loss to No. 1 seed Valparaiso in a semifinal game at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

The BYU women also defeated Gonzaga Saturday, 71-63, earning the No. 2 seed in the tournament. The women will play the winner of the San Diego-Portland game Friday at 3 p.m. MST.

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