BYU did the unthinkable on Feb. 22 by defeating No. 2 Gonzaga 91-78 in the Marriott Center on Senior Night in the first-ever ranked matchup between the two teams in series history.
The game was a night to remember. The Marriott Center was packed to the max — 18,987 attendees to be exact. BYU was ranked for the first time in nine seasons, falling at No. 23 in that week’s AP Poll. Gonzaga was No. 2 in the nation and held a 19-game win streak going into the match. Going on a seven-game conference win-streak and claiming its first ranking in years, BYU had real hope marching into the anticipated Gonzaga matchup.
Men’s Basketball Director of Media Relations Kyle Chilton has been working with the team since 2008. Out of all the seasons and matchups versus the Zags, he described why this game was particularly special.
“The Gonzaga atmosphere was unique in that there was a sense of hope and excitement the program hadn’t felt in a while,” Chilton said. “BYU was ranked for the first time since 2011, and there was a chance to prove we deserved that ranking. I think there was also a sense that this team, after everything it had been through during the season, could prove how good it was.”
The Cougars had only beat Gonzaga five times since 2011, while the Zags had won 17 matchups. ESPN’s matchup predictor only gave BYU a 38% chance to win entering the game, there was a sliver of hope that the newly-ranked Cougars and its senior leadership would give the program another historic win.
The Cougars were led by their star-senior Yoeli Childs, who scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He was closely followed by senior Jake Toolson who claimed 17 points, going 5 for 9 from three, and senior TJ Haws who scored 16 points. No one on BYU’s roster had beaten Gonzaga in the Marriott Center before that night, with the last program win versus Gonzaga at home being in 2015.
Director of Broadcast Media and “Voice of the Cougars” Greg Wrubell reminisced on making the final call while fans began storming the court.
“As the fans came on the floor, and began to envelop our broadcast area, I’m still on the air and fans are high-fiving and trying to hug and I’m seeing cellphones in my face as we’re still doing our thing,” Wrubell said. “You’re trying to stay professional and still do your job, but you’re certainly enjoying the moment with the fans. It was more of a party atmosphere.”
While reveling in all of the glory and hype around BYU basketball’s successful season, many have posed the question of which home game was bigger for the program: the win over Gonzaga on Feb. 22 or the 2011 win over No. 4 San Diego State.
Before the 2011 win, BYU basketball was at its best since the early 90s, and San Diego State was one of two undefeated teams left in the nation with a 20-0 record. BYU only had one loss, boasting a 19-1 record. San Diego State was No. 4 in the AP Poll, with now NBA All-Star Kawhi Leonard leading the way. BYU was No. 9 in the nation, with the national spotlight on future National Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette.
Chilton said while both games were exciting, San Diego State had a different feel.
“The San Diego State game had more of a buzz because the eyes of the college basketball world were focused on Provo,” Chilton said. “Jimmer Fredette was the favorite for national player of the year and BYU and San Diego State were both top-10 teams.”
Jimmer dropped 43 points that game, shooting 14 for 24 from the field and 5 for 8 from behind the arc, proving why he was the national player of the year. Jimmer won the Naismith Award, along with the John Wooden Award, AP National Player of the Year and others in that season. He also averaged 28.9 points, 4.3 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game in the 2010-11 season. The basketball world belonged to Jimmer, and the fans were reveling in it.
San Diego State’s Leonard tried to carry the Aztecs to a victory over the Cougars with 22 points and 15 rebounds, but his efforts weren’t enough to beat hot-handed BYU. The Aztecs fell to BYU 71-58 in the last minutes of the game. Despite the loss, Leonard has since moved on and is currently one of the most well-known stars in the NBA, aiding the Toronto Raptors to a win in the 2019 NBA Finals.
The matchup versus San Diego State continues to be one of the most celebrated wins in BYU basketball program history, with the 2010-11 team continuing on to accomplish what no other BYU team had done before. The Cougars went on to finish its season in the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament with a heartbreaking 83-74 overtime loss to Florida.
It’s hard to compare the two games because they’re so different. It’s easier to see what the 2011 game meant to the program overall after nine years. Chilton said that despite the incredible performance by the Cougars against Gonzaga, the highest-ranked team BYU has defeated at home, he still needs to see what happens over the next month to truly decide what the game means for this team and its season.
Yet Wrubell, in his 24th year as the Voice of the Cougars, sees a distinct difference in what the two games mean for the program.
“In 2011, the game was in late January,” Wrubell said. “It didn’t really finalize anything as much as it reaffirmed that BYU is a really high-quality team. This win against Gonzaga was needed to put a stamp on BYU as an NCAA tournament team. We think they’re good, we got them in the bracket, but if we beat Gonzaga, we’ll know that they’re legit. Then they did that.”
Wrubell added that the win over Gonzaga proves that BYU belongs in the NCAA tournament. He was also happy to see that the competition was back, and that BYU proved Gonzaga wasn’t necessarily running away from BYU in the rivalry.
While 2011’s San Diego State win was monumental for BYU’s basketball program, the Gonzaga game is still recent memory. Fans will never forget Jimmermania, but the Gonzaga win was a team effort, with three different players scoring in double-digits.
College basketball analyst and statistician Ken Pomeroy added his two cents on BYU’s teamwork and success after the Gonzaga win.
“I think it’s almost better that you don’t have a Jimmer and you’re still successful,” Pomeroy said. “You have multiple guys that can score, you don’t necessarily have one guy that’s going to go off for forty and becomes the focus on the game plan.”
Head coach Mark Pope found it hard to move past the game. He even went home and re-watched the game from 1:30-3:30 a.m. the same night that BYU played the game. Pope learned the team still has a lot of work to do, from rewatching the game.
“I watched the game that night and was like, ‘We were amazing! We beat the greatest team in the world,'” Pope said. “And then, I watched the game again Sunday night and all I could think is how we are not even close to where we need to be. We’ve gotta grow. We’ve gotta get better.”
BYU is currently a No. 6 seed looking to face an opponent from one of the First Four games in St. Louis. From there, BYU will attempt to make a deep run in the tourney, as many call the Cougars a Final Four dark horse candidate.