Eighteen seasons, 18 West Coast Conference tournament final appearances. That means the last time Gonzaga wasn’t playing for a tournament crown, much of its current roster was incapable of a traveling violation.
The added layer to this one, however, is the seventh-ranked Bulldogs’ opponent is the main reason they’re likely on the outside looking in at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and no longer have a pair of substantial winning streaks intact.
In a rematch of last season’s WCC title game, Gonzaga tries for a third straight conference tournament crown while BYU attempts to dismiss any bubble concerns Tuesday night in Las Vegas with the teams meeting just 10 days after the Cougars shocked Spokane.
"I think we understand the challenge," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "They’re a top-5 team in the country, have been all year, but our guys are ready for what we’re in for. It’s a deep team. It’s a team that’s got very good balance to them. … I know our guys have got confidence in our ability to beat them."
Gonzaga’s run of 18 straight conference tournament final appearances dating back to 1998 is the longest active streak in the NCAA more than three times over. Only Belmont, which just won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, has a current streak of at least five.
Prior to BYU’s 73-70 win at Gonzaga on Feb. 28, the Bulldogs had won a school-record 22 straight with a 41-game home winning streak – tops in the nation.
"It was nice to win the biggest game," said BYU guard Kyle Collinsworth, who scored 20 points and is averaging 16.4 points during the team’s eight-game winning streak.
Gonzaga (31-2), which leads the nation with a shooting mark of 52.4 percent, was held to 43.9 percent and was 1 of 8 on 3-pointers in the second half. The schools have split the last four meetings with the Bulldogs winning at BYU on Dec. 27 after defeating the Cougars 75-64 a day short of a year ago in Las Vegas.
More recently, both teams cruised through Monday’s tournament semifinals. Gonzaga first dispatched Pepperdine 79-61 to put it in position for a 13th tournament title in those 18 seasons. BYU (25-8) then handed Portland an 84-70 defeat, with Collinsworth’s sixth triple-double of the season trying an NCAA career record shared by Shaquille O’Neal.
His only one in a loss came at home against Gonzaga in December.
The Bulldogs were uncertain of top scorer Kyle Wiltjer’s status, but the forward showed no signs of being limited by a left hip injury that made him a game-time decision with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
He was instrumental in a quick second-half start, combining with Byron Wesley to score 25 of the team’s first 30 points after Gonzaga led by just two after 20 minutes.
"It starts with the defensive end," said Wesley, who led all scorers with 25 on 10-of-13 shooting and has averaged 16.0 points against BYU. "We weren’t really ourselves in the first half, but we came out in the second half and locked in defensively. We were able to get steals and push the ball in transition and get baskets. When we do that, that’s when we’re playing our best basketball."
For the Cougars, a convincing semifinal win and a nice winning streak are certainly positive resume credits toward an eighth tournament berth in nine seasons. Another victory would bypass speculation with the conference’s automatic bid.
For its best shot at that, BYU could use more out of top scorer Tyler Haws. The senior guard is averaging 22.3 points while shooting 47.5 percent over the past three seasons and has managed 24.0 while shooting 56.7 percent in two tournament games.
In seven career games against Gonzaga, he’s been limited to 15.1 points on 36.3 percent shooting, including a 3-for-11 game in Spokane.