How the BYU-Gonzaga basketball rivalry evolved

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (wearing white) puts down a dunk.

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2) puts down a dunk as BYU and Gonzaga play in the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Gonzaga won 88-78.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A top-10 opponent in No. 8 Gonzaga. A National Player of the Year candidate in Drew Timme. An announced sellout. ESPN in the house. 

It’s a recipe for another memorable matchup at the Marriott Center Thursday (7:30 p.m., MST, ESPN) when the Cougars and Zags collide.

And, on top of all that, it’s the final time BYU will host Gonzaga as a member of the West Coast Conference.

BYU and Gonzaga have built a strong, colorful rivalry in the short 12 years that the Cougars have been members of the WCC. 

While the Zags lead the all-time series 23-7, those scant BYU victories have been memorable and impactful. 

Months before the Cougars joined the WCC, the two programs met in the NCAA Tournament in 2011 in Denver for the right to go to the Sweet 16. That day, National Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette poured in 34 points and BYU pounded Gonzaga 89-67. That sent the Cougars to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years.

Since then, the Zags have dominated the series overall. But BYU, almost always the underdog against Gonzaga, savors the wins that it has earned.

From 2015-2017, the Cougars beat Gonzaga at The Kennel in Spokane three consecutive times, highlighted by a 79-71 triumph in 2017, when the Zags were No. 1 in the country and 29-0, looking to go undefeated for the first time in their history. BYU trailed 18-2 in the game’s opening minutes, and it trailed by as many as 12 in the second half before pulling off the shocking upset, 79-71. It stands as one of the biggest victories in school history. 

In 2020, on Senior Night at the Marriott Center, No. 23 BYU knocked off No. 2 Gonzaga 91-78 in front of a sellout crowd. As the final buzzer sounded, delirious fans rushed the court for a jubilant celebration — just weeks before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. 

That was the most recent Cougar win over the Bulldogs. 

“For us, they certainly draw a ton of attention. They’ve been pretty dominant in our matchups. But we’ve had some big wins that are super important,” said coach Mark Pope. “Over the last several years, we’ve both spent a lot of time on the national stage. Certainly, they’ve been the leader of this conference. There’s no doubt. It’s super fun. Those are the two venues in our league where you’re sold-out and there’s a frenzy about it. For the last couple of years, we’ve been top-25 programs, so it makes it really fun. On a personal level, coach (Mark) Few has been so generous to me and so kind. It’s a great game that we love so much even though sometimes it can be madly frustrating.”

BYU’s Gideon George was on his recruiting visit to Provo that night the Cougars defeated Gonzaga in 2020. 

Now, as a senior, he would love to experience that feeling for himself as a player. 

“I want to be on the floor because that was a special moment just being in the crowd, seeing everyone going down to the floor, celebrating with the players,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to that, like getting a win against the Zags before I’m done. That would be really special just seeing the crowd celebrating with us and storming the court. That would be so cool.”

His favorite memory playing the Zags so far was in the 2021 WCC Tournament in Las Vegas, where No. 1 and undefeated Gonzaga was on its heels in the opening 20 minutes of play. The Cougars led by as many as 14 points in the first half before losing 88-78. 

“I wouldn’t trade that for nothing,” George recalled. “The hype in the locker room, everyone was excited. Unfortunately, we lost the game. That first half was my favorite moment against the Zags.”

So what’s the future of the rivalry between BYU, which joins the Big 12 for the 2023-24 season, and Gonzaga? 

Both Pope and Few have said they’d like to continue the series, but nothing has been settled yet. 

“Certainly, this game has been something that’s been super meaningful to us. It’s super fun for our fans. It’s going to be a really fun gym on Thursday like it always is,” Pope said. “The one thing about Gonzaga is, that coach Few and myself, are inclined to keep playing somehow. I don’t know if it’s every year, but keep finding a home-and-home from time to time that we can do. Maybe a little less nostalgia there because I suspect we’ll get to play them again. We’ll see. You never know. … Coach Few has been like, ‘Anybody that will play me, let’s go.’ I think there’s a chance we get that game and we’ve talked about it before. I don’t know when.”

On WCC Media Day in October, Timme was asked about Gonzaga playing BYU in the future. 

“I think it’s a special rivalry. And one that should continue even past them leaving the conference,” he said. “I think it’s something that we should do home-and-homes forever. … I feel like it’s developed into such a great rivalry.” 

Few said he’s happy for BYU’s situation and he expressed a desire to keep playing the Cougars. 

“They’ve been a great partner. They’re a national program and they act like a national program. Their game-day is as good as anybody’s — and we’ve been everywhere,” he said. “To experience it, it is as big-time as anybody’s. It’s been a healthy rivalry with some phenomenal games with different characters involved over the years and highly competitive. I’m sure we’ll continue to play in some fashion or form moving forward.”

Still, despite all the hype surrounding this game, George said he and his teammates are trying to focus on the task at hand — facing the Zags, the perennial WCC champions. 

“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves. We’re doing the stuff that’s been helping us all season long — transition defense, running back, and be urgent, communicate and rebounding the ball is a huge aspect for us on offense and defense,” he said. “We’re just trying to key into that and do what the coaches preach every day. If we stay that course, we’re going to be good. We don’t need to change anything, just keep doing what we’re doing.”

For freshman guard Dallin Hall, this will be his first game against Gonzaga. He’s heard all about the challenges the Zags pose and how to deal with them. 

“Obviously, this week, everything has been amped up in intensity, but from day one, when I got here in June, Gideon and some of the leaders that have been in games like this, they’ve pushed me in regular practices to the point where I’m going to perform in this game because of what they’ve held me accountable to,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun environment, but I’m grateful for the guys around me for pushing me all summer and preparing me for these situations, and I can’t wait to play the Zags.”

The Cougars are hoping for a little Marriott Center Magic Thursday, like they’ve experienced before against Gonzaga. The students are back in school after Christmas break, so the ROC will be loud and passionate. 

“The ROC is unbelievable,” Pope said. “How fun is this, to have students back on campus? We’re super excited about that.”

“It’s one of my favorite feelings, especially here at home, playing here in front of the ROC. We have such amazing fans,” Hall said. “Obviously as a competitor, you try to bring your best every night. We’re going to do the same for this game. It’s going to be awesome having that on our backs in the second half when we’re playing defense.”

Nobody knows when, or if, Gonzaga will return to the Marriott Center after Thursday night. So this matchup will be one fans on both sides are looking forward to as part of one of their most cherished rivalries. 

No. 8 Gonzaga (14-3, 3-0) at BYU (13-6, 3-1) 

Thursday, 7:30 p.m. MST

Marriott Center


Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM

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