LAS VEGAS — Gonzaga was out of sorts for one of the few times this season, falling into its biggest halftime deficit in three years.
Corey Kispert got the Bulldogs back in it. Jalen Suggs finished it off.
The undefeated season is intact. The NCAA Tournament is next.
Suggs hit two late 3-pointers and scored 23 points, helping top-ranked Gonzaga survive its biggest test of an undefeated season to beat Brigham Young 88-78 in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game on Tuesday night.
“We needed a game like that,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We had some adversity and got punched in the face. We got together at halftime and the guys just stuck with the plan.”
The Bulldogs (26-0) had been unstoppable all season, winning all but one of their games by double digits as they advanced to the WCC title game for the 24th straight year.
The Cougars (20-6) made the lopsided losses list twice, but exposed Gonzaga’s lone weakness in the first half at Orleans Arena: its defense.
BYU shot confidently, using an early 11-0 run to build a 12-point halftime lead.
The Zags responded by locking down defensively and getting back to their efficient ways on offense.
Kispert hit three early 3-pointers and scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half. Suggs took charge down the stretch, hitting consecutive 3-pointers to put Gonzaga up by nine with 1:28 left.
“I’ve been dreaming of playing college basketball all my life,” Suggs said. “I was practicing on my Little Tikes hoop for these exact moments and for it to play out like this is crazy.”
Gonzaga has won a school-record 30 straight games over two seasons and will be the first team since Kentucky in 2015, and 16th overall, to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated. The Zags won their eighth WCC title in nine years and 17th under Few.
Trevin Knell led BYU with 20 points.
“They’re really good,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “They played a great game and competed the whole way. They do a terrific job.”
The Cougars were the last team to beat Gonzaga, 91-78 on Feb. 22, 2020.
Gonzaga won the first meeting this season by 17 points, but the second was 82-71 – one of the closest games these Zags have played.
BYU’s best chance to win the third go-round was to outshoot the Zags.
The Cougars did just that to start the game, hitting 10 of their first 16 shots to take a 26-19 lead. BYU continued to go right at the Zags, hitting 9 of 13 from beyond the arc to lead 53-41 at halftime. Knell had 15 points and was 4 of 5 from 3.
“We couldn’t stop them,” Few said. “They had us on roller skates.”
Gonzaga looked like more the the nation’s No. 1 team to start the second half, getting out to BYU’s shooters and putting the ball in Kispert’s hands.
The preseason Associated Press All-American shot 1 of 6 in the first half, but made three 3s in the opening three minutes to pull Gonzaga with 55-52. It stayed close as the teams traded runs, then Suggs hit a 3-pointer with 2:20 left and another on Gonzaga’s next possession to make it 82-73.
“Gonzaga responded in the second half,” said BYU guard Alex Borcello, who had 15 points. “We had a really good first half, some shots didn’t fall in the second half, we didn’t grab a couple of rebounds and Gonzaga pulled away.”
BYU showed it can hang with anyone when the shots are falling. Expect the Cougars to be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga got a jolt from the Cougars, which could work out well. Being tested this late after a season full of blowouts could help the Zags if things get tight in the tournament.
Knell entered the title game averaging 5.8 points per game, but got some open looks against Gonzaga’s pressure. The sophomore guard took advantage, particularly in the first half, finishing 5 of 10 from 3-point range.
“Trevin is not lacking for confidence,” Pope said. “He had a great night for us.”
PURSUIT OF PERFECTION
Gonzaga has shied away from talking about becoming the first team since Indiana in 1976 to finish a season undefeated.
Six games away from the perfection, the Zags realize how close they are.
“We finally acknowledged this is a big deal,” Few said. “It puts us in some incredible company. It’s a heck of an accomplishment.”
BYU should be a lock to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. A strong showing against the No. 1 team in the country should boost their seeding, too.
Gonzaga will be a No. 1 seed next week as the tournament gets underway in Indianapolis.