DENVER -- BYU fans were chanting long after the team had left the court at the Pepsi Center. Their cries could be heard inside the Cougars locker room, where a player asked Jimmer Fredette if he could understand the chants.
“3:16?” he asked Fredette, a reference to the famed verse of Biblical scripture.
The BYU faithful were actually chanting “Sweet 16!“ The team's hearing problem was one of the few struggles the Cougars experienced as they trounced 11th-seeded Gonzaga 89-67 on Saturday. Behind Fredette’s 34, BYU advanced to the regional semifinal round for the first time in 30 years.
“It’s been a long time for our fans, and I’m happy, really happy for them,” said BYU coach Dave Rose, pausing as his voice cracked with emotion. “I’m happy for our players, happy for our coaches, our administration. I mean, everybody is in this. We’re in this together. This is a special team.”
Fredette, the nation’s leading scorer, delivered one of his most memorable performances, hitting seven 3-pointers and burying the Zags.
The Cougars faced many uncertainties heading into the tournament.
Leading rebounder Brandon Davies had been suspended for the rest of the season in early March after violating the school’s honor code. He was relegated to the bench wearing a sweater rather than a jersey. In its first game following Davies' suspension, BYU lost to New Mexico at home. Rose told the team it needed to adjust or this magical season would soon end.
He also implemented associate head coach Dave Rice’s new game plan -- a strategy that called for spreading the floor and creating chances based on driving and kicking the ball out to the perimeter.
Against an imposing Gonzaga frontline that included 7-foot center Robert Sacre and ultra-athletic 6-foot-7 forward Elias Harris, BYU did just that. Fredette scored his first five field goals on 3-pointers. He ran off screens and pulled up in transition to get looks at the basket. While Fredette was 2-for-9 from beyond the arc two days earlier against Wofford, he was 7-for-12 facing a mixture of man-to-man and zone defenses from the Zags.
“You have off nights, then you come back and have good nights,” Fredette said. “Kind of the law of percentages throughout the year.”
Said guard Jackson Emery: “Jimmer’s Jimmer. He’s going to score from outside, inside, you never know.”
The Cougars made half of their 3-point attempts, with Emery and Noah Hartsock each notching three. Emery scored 11 of his 16 points in the first half while Hartsock scored 13 on 5-for-5 shooting.
The Bulldogs (25-10) saw their 10-game winning streak snapped despite 17 points from Sacre and 18 points apiece from Harris and senior Steven Gray. Harris grabbed eight rebounds, and Sacre had seven to help outrebound the Cougars 36-27.
But after a Gray 3-pointer cut the lead to eight with 12:19 left, BYU responded with a 12-0 run capped off by back-to-back 3-pointers from Fredette and Hartsock, and eventually extended the lead to 24. Rose called this the best game BYU has played all season.
“They got points, they were physical, but we tried to be physical back with them even though we don‘t have the size,” Hartsock said.
Not since Danny Ainge led BYU to a run to the Elite Eight in 1981 has the program experienced this level of success. The Fredette worship has become a national phenomenon. In each corner of the Pepsi Center, fans held up homemade posters and marked Fredette’s points as he scored them. They left plenty of space available just in case the star senior exploded for more.
The Cougars hope to make more history during a dream season in which Emery has already broken Ainge’s all-time steals record and Fredette has broken the school record for points. They’ll now face Florida in New Orleans for a chance to go to the Elite Eight.
“It’s stuff you’ve always dreamed of,” Emery said. “We know we’re not done yet.”