Marriott misery: BYU collapses late in 75-74 loss to No. 8 Gonzaga

There was magic in the air.

In its final opportunity to take down big, bad Gonzaga at home as a WCC foe, BYU men’s basketball held an improbable 10-point lead with five minutes to play.

The Cougars seemingly couldn’t miss from three-point land.

BYU was forcing Bulldog turnovers left and right.

Gonzaga couldn’t shake a serious shooting funk.

The Marriott Center was deafening, and the rowdy ROC was ready to party like it was February 2020 all over again, with students lining up in preparation for another court storming.

Such hopes to flood the Marriott Center floor would quickly go down the drain.

Less than five minutes after leading by 10, a Julian Strawther go-ahead three and ensuing BYU offensive stall would slaughter all remaining joy in the building, with No. 8 Gonzaga stunning the Cougars 75-74 to survive a possible upset.

“Clearly we are super disappointed, but I couldn’t be more proud of our guys,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said. “They played their hearts out tonight. We can execute a little better, make some better decisions and come up with better plays, but overall I thought the guys played really hard. They were composed and played really aggressively, so I am super proud of them.”

An eight minute, 20-6 run for the Cougars in the second half — paired with excellent defense in holding Gonzaga to a 2-13 shooting mark over that same stretch — gave BYU its 10-point advantage with five minutes remaining. It felt as if the Marriott Center was ready to explode at any moment.

However, Gonzaga is still Gonzaga.

The veteran Bulldogs began pressing the young Cougars — who still can’t handle late defensive pressure, by the way — en route to a 11-2 mad dash to cut the BYU lead to one, boiling the arena adrenaline into anxiety. Everyone had seen this movie before. Pope’s squad had so often faltered in crunch time chaos.

But had the Cougars learned from their past shortcomings? A Gideon George three-pointer with 1:23 remaining put BYU ahead by four, and while there was still plenty of time on the clock, it seemed the Cougars would not be denied this time around. This felt different.

Different until it wasn’t.

After a gutsy Spencer Johnson rebound to pick up a foul, a careless Jaxson Robinson inbound pass was thrown right to Gonzaga, which immediately became a momentum-altering Nolan Hickman three with a minute left.

Scoring 17 points while shooting 5-8 from three, Robinson was in the midst of his strongest outing as a Cougar, but the transfer guard’s inability to finish would ultimately define his night. Just before Strawther’s dagger three to take the lead for Gonzaga, Robinson had missed the back end of a one-and-one free throw to prevent BYU from going ahead by three, which allowed Strawther the chance to pull ahead rather than merely tie.

Even worse? Robinson had called off his rebounders just before the missed free throw, taking away the chance for BYU to grab an offensive board or foul and giving the ball right to the Zags. Strawther wasted no time to pull the trigger on his three, burying the shot with 9.5 seconds remaining to surprise the Cougar defense which had expected Gonzaga to burn more clock.

“This is a new and young team. We had a few wildly-costly turnovers, but we are trying to learn right now,” Pope said. “It’s really easy to get distracted in those late-game situations, and we have done that, but it’s a space where we will continue to grow and get better.”

Down one against a top-10 ranked rival with nine seconds to play. No pressure!

Luckily BYU had Dallin Hall up its sleeve, who had already hit two game-winners at the Marriott Center this season, so clearly Pope drew up a play to give his freshman point guard a chance to call game, right?

Well…

Whatever Pope drew up, it didn’t work.

Spencer Johnson found himself tangled up between Bulldog defenders, only to dribble off his own foot and throw up a desperate heave which was smothered by Anton Watson, officially striking midnight on BYU’s Cinderella attempt for an upset.

Zags 75, Cougars 74. Yet another missed opportunity for this BYU team, and yet another Gonzaga win at the Marriott Center, with this one coming in the Bulldogs’ possible final trip to Provo.. at least for now.

“These guys continue to get better and I think they’re hungry to get better,” Pope said. “They have been incredibly committed to growing as a team, and they are finding ways to function a little bit better every week.. part of the growing process is taking some punches on the things you do well. Growing is messy, ugly and painful, but it’s also exhilarating, inspiring and fun.”

Although fading at the end, the Cougars definitely showed signs of growth on offense against the Zags, dishing out 18 assists, scoring 21 points off turnovers and shooting a solid 52% from three, with 12 of BYU’s 13 deep makes coming from Robinson, George and Johnson.

“We were getting (threes) in transition tonight and pushing the ball down the floor really hard which was forcing them into rotations,” Johnson said. “Our guys did a really good job finding the open man tonight, and Jaxson (Robinson) had some really awesome shots.”

Johnson led the Cougars with 18 points, adding six rebounds and five steals as well, with Robinson and George posting 17 points each to lead BYU’s scoring charge.

BYU’s bench, however, proved mightily ineffective, scoring just eight points with a combined box plus/minus of -23, while the typically strong Cougar rebounding effort was waxed by a 47-32 Gonzaga margin.

“We took a huge step back from the glass tonight, and that is a major issue for us,” Pope said. “The glass has been a strength for us all season, and it needs to be a strength moving forward in the big games.”

With the loss, BYU falls to 13-7 on the season and 3-2 in WCC play, next facing Pepperdine at home Saturday night.

“We have 48 hours until we have a massive game against Pepperdine to see if we can keep growing,” Pope said.

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