The Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-0, 16-0 WCC) earned yet another West Coast Conference tournament crown after they edged out the BYU Cougars (20-7, 10-4 WCC) by a score of 88-78 Tuesday night in Las Vegas.
Jalen Suggs came up clutch for his Bulldogs down the stretch, finishing with 23 points, five assists and five rebounds as the Zags notched their ninth conference championship in 11 years.
Early on, it was the stout BYU defense that set the tone for the game. Despite the blistering pace on the break, the Zags started 6-for-14 from the field, including a 0-for-4 start from Corey Kispert, the conference’s player of the year. Scoring around the rim was a premium, as Matt Haarms disrupted multiple layup attempts from the likes of Suggs and Ayayi.
“[BYU] took it to us,” head coach Mark Few said. “They had us on roller skates and were just out-competing us.”
Likewise, the Cougars hot start shooting the ball had the GU defense on its heels throughout the first half. The WCC’s second-best scoring offense knocked down 15 of its first 20 shot attempts, including 6-for-9 from behind the arc. It was a balanced attack from BYU, as five Cougars scored five points or more within the first 15 minutes of action, leaving the Bulldogs guessing on defense. Even the bench got involved with 23 points combined in the first half.
GU faced its largest halftime deficit of the season as it trailed 53-41 after 20 minutes of play. Suggs and Ayayi led the Zags in scoring with 11 points each while Trevin Knell powered BYU with 15 points on 4-for-5 shooting from deep.
Then, in typical Bulldogs fashion, the switch was flipped coming out of the break. An 11-2 run in the first three minutes made it a one possession game, as Kispert knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to give his team life. On the other end, it was the Cougars who struggled shooting, going just 2-for-8 to open the half.
“The guys came out and played fantastic defense in the second half,” Few said. “Our offense got going because of our defense.”
It was certainly a tale of two halves for both offenses. A lackluster performance from the Bulldogs was erased with a 15-for-27 outing in the second half, including six 3-pointers from Kispert and Suggs. Meanwhile, the BYU offense sputtered, shooting just 2-for-15 from deep despite wearing down the Zags defense. The Cougars aggressiveness also tapered off, as they shot just three free-throw attempts in the second half.
BYU managed to hold its slim advantage, but the Zags continued to fight. Defensive stops sparked the transition offense, including a 3-pointer from Suggs at the top of the arc, followed by a contact layup from Kispert moments later. GU finally secured the lead after a long outlet pass from Suggs to Ayayi for an easy layup.
Kispert and Suggs accounted for 26 of the Zags’ 47 points in the second half. The duo combined to shoot 6-for-10 from deep and proved to be the spark GU needed down the stretch.
It was a back-and-forth affair down the stretch as the WCC’s top two teams duked it out to the end. Suggs made his presence felt on both ends of the floor, contesting shots from Haarms on defense while making plays on the offensive side. With a 76-73 lead, the WCC newcomer of the year stepped up yet again, knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers to give his Zags their largest margin of the night.
“Big time players make big time plays in big time games,” Suggs said. “I’ve been waiting to play in these moments in March my whole life.”
Drew Timme capped off the night with a thundering two-hand jam, followed by his signature mustache celebration.
“We needed a game like that,” Few said. “In a sadistic way, I was hoping for a game like this.”
The Bulldogs will officially know where they stand in the NCAA tournament on Sunday, March 14th, following the selection show at 3 p.m. on CBS. The first round will commence on Friday, March 19th, and Saturday, March 20th.