Banged-up BYU, Zags continue budding rivalry

See if this sounds familiar: a banged-up BYU team has a huge road game against a conference power that almost never loses at home. The Cougars have an injured starting point guard, and Noah Hartsock is listed as questionable for the game. Sure, that describes Thursday night's game at Gonzaga, but it also describes what turned out to be a highlight of last year. Will history repeat itself?

Heading into a top-10 showdown against No. 4 San Diego State last year, Noah Hartsock was nursing a sprained foot and Jimmer Fredette had a calf contusion. But Hartsock played all but one minute of the game and had 15 points (6-of-7 shooting, 3-of-4 from outside), three assists, five rebounds and four blocks, Fredette did his thing, and the underdog cats – or rather, Cougars – were triumphant, 80-67.

It was BYU's biggest victory last season, other than the 89-67 victory over Gonzaga that sent BYU to the Sweet Sixteen.

Which brings us to Thursday's game against, yep, the Zags.

This time around, Hartsock is dealing with a sore knee and is day-to-day. Matt Carlino is also dealing with a sore knee, although less severe. Unlike Hartsock, he was able to practice on Tuesday and will for sure play against Gonzaga. Coach Rose said Hartsock is tough and will play as long as he is physically able, and with it being such a big game with WCC championship and postseason implications, that's no surprise.

"It's gonna be an exciting game for both teams, a game with a lot of implications of conference standings and stuff like that, so we're ready to go," said Charles Abouo.

BYU won the previous matchup this season at the Marriott Center, 83-73, after leading by as many as 19 points.

"It gives us a lot of confidence, not just that win, but the wins we've been getting," said Davies. "We've got a couple in a row here, and as we continue our streak, we just keep getting more and more confident."

Although the two teams have only played twice since their first matchup in 1949, and only once as conference foes, they are on their way to developing what could be a great rivalry.

"I think the rivalry's already there," Abouo said.

This will be BYU's first time playing Gonzaga at the McCarthey Athletic Center, also knows as ‘The Kennel.' The Zags have only lost one game there this season – to a Michigan State team now ranked in the top 10 – and have a 102-7 record there since it opened in 2004.

"I heard it's crazy, but we'll definitely be ready for it," Abouo said about The Kennel. "We love playing on the road, and it'll be a much tougher test than the previous two times probably on their home floor."

The game will be another matchup between two similar teams that both have a strong, veteran frontline and a backcourt with two freshmen starters.

Just as Hartsock and Brandon Davies are BYU's strength, Robert Sacre, Elias Harris and reserve Sam Dower help make Gonzaga go. Playing against them is a challenge that Davies relishes.

"We definitely love it," said Davies. "I know they love it too. It's an opportunity to go up against a bunch of top-rated post players. It's just fun to compete against people."

"I think that the most important thing with this team is [to] handle that frontline, and that's where we put a lot of emphasis, and they had a lot of space in this game [last time]," said Coach Rose. "We're going to have to close down that space a lot more, try and speed them up a little bit where they don't feel comfortable."

Nevertheless, despite Gonzaga's leadership and experience in the post, freshman point guard Kevin Pangos is the team's leading scorer with 13.4 points per game. The Cougars held him to four points on 2-of-6 shooting last time, and he had four of the 19 Gonzaga turnovers that fueled BYU's transition game.

"With the young guards that they have, they're a much different team at home," said Rose, noting that the Zags shoot better at home and also try to play faster there. "They're a lot more confident. I don't think we can count on the points that we scored on turnovers here up there."

Abouo is also expecting a different Gonzaga team this time around.

"They're a very good team, but they probably didn't shoot their best in here, and they didn't get that good of a game from a lot of their players that are really capable."

Under Coach Rose, BYU had a history in the MWC of winning at least one big unexpected road conference game most years. The Cougars have a tough test ahead of them at Gonzaga if they are to continue that trend in the WCC, especially if Hartsock cannot play.

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