Brigham Young Cougars forward Seneca Knight (24) is blocked by Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Andrew Nembhard (3) on Saturday, February 5, 2022 in Provo. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)
Estimated reading time: 5-6 minutes
PROVO — Somewhere along the 809-mile journey between Santa Clara, California, and returning home to Provo, something broke with the BYU men’s basketball team.
Mixing it with the powerhouse that has become Gonzaga, the second-ranked team in the country and the No. 1 team in KenPom’s forecasting metrics, was like mixing water with lead.
Chet Holmgren had 20 points, 17 rebounds, six assists, and five blocks; and Julien Strawther added 19 points and five rebounds as the Zags drove to their 29th straight West Coast Conference game win with a crushing 90-57 win over BYU and the Cougars their worst loss since a 34-point streak Setback against Gonzaga on February 27 gave 23rd 2019.
Andrew Nembhard provided 15 points, four rebounds and four assists; and Drew Timme opted for 13 points and five rebounds for Gonzaga, who improved to 19-2 overall with an 8-0 lead in the Zags’ 12th win of the WCC game.
The win extended an all-time streak record to 23-7 and sent the near-capacity crowd of just under 19,000, including nearly 6,000 students, camping out since Thursday night with disappointment and a yearning for answers.
Get in line, kids. The ultimate test of the season continues for BYU basketball, which was once chasing a 7th-place finish in the NCAA tournament and now finds itself in ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four In” territory — at best.
Losing to Gonzaga is no sign of dishonour. Losing at home at 33 after giving up losses to Santa Clara, Pacific and San Francisco is, shall we say, a little tedious?
“They’re clearly a really, really good team,” BYU coach Mark Pope said of the Zags. “They earned their place and they played great tonight. They’re really good in every way. They did a great job and we’ll keep working to get better.”
Gideon George had 14 points before fouling after 19 minutes to lead BYU (17-8, 5-5 WCC) who lost their fourth straight game for the first time since 2014 and boosted their NCAA tournament hopes brought the edge.
Alex Barcello added 9 points and five assists, and Seneca Knight – starting in place of injured Te’Jon Lucas for the first time since Dec. 11 – delivered 13 points and six rebounds.
Off and running @JulianStrawtherpic.twitter.com/IrASwMwUl3
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) February 6, 2022
Statistically, the Cougars should never hang out with the Zags. And despite the 2:04 lead time, BYU was about as far behind Mark Few’s machine as they come.
It wasn’t until the Cougars trailed 30 points, which they did when Nembhard saved a 3-pointer at 1:58 in the first half, that the competitive spirit returned to the Marriott Center.
It didn’t matter, however, as the Zags did what they’d done to a team from WCC nearly 30 straight times since a 91-75 loss in front of a sold-out Marriott Center on a seniors night celebrating Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws and a handful of former BYU players who are now enjoying professional careers.
Neither Childs, Haws, Jake Toolson, nor the rest of the class went through the Marriott Center ticket office on Saturday night. If they had, they might have sat alongside New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson and Washington Commanders wide receiver Dax Milne — and been equally stunned by the program’s two-week trajectory.
“We doubt and wonder very much. We’ve got to get better,” said Pope, who hasn’t lost four straight games since his 17-17 win over Utah Valley in 2016-17 — his second season as a division I head coach. “We are really being tested and need to find new, creative answers. We need to reinvent ourselves a bit.
“We can do some good things. We have good players. We just have to find a better way to do it.”
Atiki Brigham Young Cougars forward Ally Atiki (4) defends Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Julian Strawther (0) on Saturday February 5, 2022 in Provo. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)
Armed with the seventh different starting lineup of the season and an army of students outfitted with new white bucket hats, thundersticks and the rage of sleeping 72 hours outside the Marriott Center in tents, the Cougars gave the visiting Zags a hard time early on. The nearly sold-out crowd erupted after George sank a 3-pointer in the opening minutes to take a 5-0 lead.
But as is usual with these Zags, the lead was incredibly short-lived as Strawther dumped his own deep three at 16:14 on the clock to cap a 12-0 run before the first media timeout.
The Cougars’ job, which had lost three games — three times the length of any other BYU they faced in the coaching pope’s era — was always difficult. And it got harder when Lucas showed up in street clothes on Saturday night.
The grad transfer from Milwaukee, who averaged 10.4 points and 4.4 assists per game, was sidelined after picking up an injury and the resulting headache and neck pain in Thursday night’s loss to San Francisco, although Pope is confident seemed like this wouldn’t be a long-term problem.
“He’s fine,” Pope said, “but he’s got a bit of a neck ache and a headache, so we held him out tonight.”
Regardless, BYU continued to experiment to try and break its current funk, which also included road losses to Santa Clara and Pacific.
OKAYYY ‼️#WCChoops | @BYUMBBpic.twitter.com/RIEZnkncFi
— WCC Basketball (@WCChoops) February 6, 2022
It takes a perfect game and a little luck to beat Gonzaga, although the Cougars were the last team in the West Coast Conference to do so 28 games ago on February 22, 2020. On this particular Saturday night, BYU had neither, shooting just 25% from the field, 4 of 15 of 3, and down 3:11 en route to a 47-23 halftime deficit.
Holmgren had 13 points and 10 rebounds at the break for the Zags, and Strawther added 10 points and three boards.
Other than George, only Barcello and Spencer Johnson had multiple shots at half-time and both had 4 points at the break. As such, much of the second half involved rounds of searches and investigations, from Barcello to George and Johnson to youngsters like Fousseyni Traore, Hunter Erickson and even the rarely used Trey Stewart.
The cougars continue to search for answers.
Nobody came. With five games remaining in the season, including a Feb. 19 away game at Saint Mary’s, sandwiched between a de facto and home-and-home series with LMU and Pepperdine, the search for answers continues.
Better come quick.
“At this point, where we are, it’s a game. It’s Thursday. We’re always like that, but it’s not even Thursday for us right now. We don’t train on Sundays, but we meet on Monday mornings at 8 a.m. and we start reinventing ourselves again.”
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