Perfection is a rare sight in a college basketball season. Gonzaga took a whack at it but came up one game short.
Going into Saturday night’s game, Gonzaga held a 29-0 record and had an opportunity to make history. The night looked good for the Bulldogs with them playing at home and facing a BYU team that the Bulldogs beat by ten earlier this month. They needed to take care of business, but BYU had other ideas and pulled off the shocking upset, 79-71, on the road.
BYU is one of the many college basketball teams that are squarely on the bubble at this point in the season. They were in desperate need of a resume-boosting win and no opportunity would be greater than this one in Spokane. In order for the Cougars to win, they were going to need a big night from their leading scorer Eric Mika. He is averaging 20.2 ppg and 9.4 rpg and has been a big part to BYU’s late-season push. The Cougar big man showed his will against Gonzaga and posted 29 points with 11 rebounds. Gonzaga was burnt by Mika all night as well as in the final minute of play. Gonzaga led 71-69 with 2:13 remaining after Nigel Williams-Goss hit two free throws. BYU then answered with an 8-0 run to finish the game including four points from Mika. His biggest shot came with the game tied at 71-71. Mika and Elijah Bryant, Cougars guard, ran a pick-and-pop play which led to Bryant feeding Mika for an open mid-range shot. He drained the jumper to put the Cougars up two. BYU then shut down the Zags to end the game and made their free throws to ice the game. The run ended Gonzaga’s hope of perfection.
“This was the best game of my life in terms of the atmosphere here and how big of a win this was,” Mika said after the big win.
If there’s been one weakness for this Gonzaga team, it’s their post defense. They lack interior rim protectors with their center, Przemek Karnowski, only averaging 0.9 bpg. The Gonzaga big man chased Mika around the paint all night. His struggles in this game could be a factor down the road if he sees one of the elite post players in the NCAA tournament. They have a promising freshman, Zach Collins, who leads the team in blocks but he only plays 17.5 mpg. Mark Few, Gonzaga head coach, might be forced to make a tough decision in a big game if Karnowski continues to struggle on the defensive end.
This loss hurts for Gonzaga, but there is still plenty of work to be done this season. They are still the WCC regular season champions, the huge favorite to win the conference tournament and on pace to be a one-seed in the NCAA tournament. The focus should be pointed towards the larger goal ahead. Getting over this loss should be quick for Gonzaga.
“We still had a fabulous season,” Few said. “To be 29-1, you’re going to take that every time. We just got to move forward now. We can now stop talking about going undefeated and talk about winning the rest of these all the way out.”
If Gonzaga wins their conference tournament or at least makes the finals, they should be a one-seed in the NCAA tournament. Any team to go 29-1 in the regular season will be rewarded with a top-seed. The near-future is bright for the Bulldogs, but they are battling a rough history in the tournament. They’ve entered the tournament as a highly seeded team plenty of times since emerging onto the scene in the 1999 season. Even though they’ve been ranked highly, they’ve never made it through the regional round and into a final four. This burden has set over the Bulldogs for quite some time. Will they be able to get over this loss and break their final four drought? Or will the loss bring them back down to earth and lead to another premature tournament exit? Only time will tell.