Gideon George goes through Gonzaga's Corey Kispert for layup. George and the Cougars put up a fight, but Kispert and the undefeated Zags came away with the win in Las Vegas. (BYU Photo)

BYU men’s basketball gives up first-half lead to lose 88-78 to Gonzaga in WCC Championship

The BYU men’s basketball team lost to the No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs in the West Coast Conference Championship game, 88-78, on Tuesday in Las Vegas, despite a 12-point lead at halftime.

“Super devastating for our guys,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said after the game. “We ran out of gas towards the end of the game and just couldn’t make the plays that we needed to make, and I couldn’t quite make the adjustments we needed to make. We couldn’t quite get the fresh bodies in we needed to. We’ll suffer through this and then collect ourselves and get better.”

Despite the loss, sophomore Trevin Knell had a terrific game, tallying a career-high 20 points, four rebounds and an assist. Alex Barcello and Matt Haarms also had significant contributions, scoring 15 and 13 points apiece.

The Cougars started the game white-hot, jumping out to a quick 9-5 lead off of a mid-range jump shot from Barcello. In BYU’s previous games against Gonzaga, the Bulldogs got out to a dominant lead in the first few minutes. That was certainly not the case this time.

Knell was electric from the 3-point line, hitting 4-of-5 threes in the first half alone. His first three came just seven minutes in, giving the Cougars a narrow 14-13 lead.

The momentum only intensified as the half progressed. Brandon Averette capped off a substantial run from the Cougars with a smooth layup, bringing the score to 33-21 with 8:32 left to play in the half.

Barcello kept the pressure on the Zags, hitting a big 3-pointer with 6:13 left to play. As the first half drew to a close, Knell made sure to leave a lasting mark on the Zags, drilling a long 3-pointer to give the Cougars a 53-39 advantage. The Bulldogs scored a couple of free throws to end the half, as BYU entered the locker room with a 53-41 lead.

But with the new half came a new Gonzaga team. The Cougars’ 12-point lead was erased almost immediately within just five minutes. The Zags scored 11 quick points, nine of which came from Corey Kispert, the WCC Player of the Year. 

BYU still managed to stay in the game despite the Zag’s early run. Junior Gideon George was a big reason for that, bringing intensity as soon as he checked into the game. The big man hit a crucial layup to bring the score to 63-57 BYU with 10:53 remaining in the game.

The Zags answered the run within minutes. Kispert made a big play for the Bulldogs, hitting a difficult layup and drawing the foul to bring it within one, 68-67 with 7:31 left to play.

From there, the lead seesawed between the two teams. With just 4:13 left on the game clock, the game was tied at 73. 

But ultimately, Gonzaga showed why they have been the No. 1 team in the country all year. WCC Newcomer of the Year Jalen Suggs led the comeback, scoring eight quick points to give the Zags an insurmountable lead, 82-73. Seconds later, Kispert dribbled out the game, solidifying the Bulldog victory, 88-78.

“We had a really good first half and then some shots didn’t fall for us,” Barcello said. “We’ve got our strengths, but we’ve also got our weaknesses. That’s what we’re gonna go back to Provo and work on, and watch film and try to get better leading up to this NCAA Tournament.”

The Cougars are said to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament this year, a privilege they have not experienced since 2015. The team’s seeding will be determined on Selection Sunday on March 13.

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