Coming off an 0-2 road trip, there was concern in Zagland earlier this week. Gonzaga faced the prospect of dropping four straight, failing to win the WCC outright, losing the No. 1 seed in the WCC Tournament and drifting onto the NCAA Tournament bubble.
GU erased those concerns with an impressive road trip, thumping Pacific 70-53 on Thursday and Saint Mary’s 75-47 on Saturday. The Zags will enter the postseason with a two-game winning streak. They won the conference by two games over BYU and San Francisco. They’ll be the top seed in Las Vegas. They appear to have distanced themselves from the NCAA bubble.
Here’s my game story that ran in Sunday’s S-R, and others by A.P., San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Times. In case you missed it, former San Francisco players and assistants are questioning Rex Walters’ coaching tactics.
Read on for my day-after Saint Mary’s post.
—It’s rare when a game, any game, let alone one on a rival’s home floor, feels like it’s over by the second media timeout (under 12). This one felt that way, as Gonzaga led 17-5 and it was apparent the Gaels were going to have difficulty scoring.
The Zags added 40 quality minutes defensively to the 40 they put in against Pacific. Przemek Karnowski, slowed a bit after spraining his ankle Thursday, was a defensive force inside. He limited Brad Waldow, who is averaging nearly 16 points per game, to 3-of-8 shooting and nine points. Karnowski swatted seven shots in the first meeting in Spokane.
“Shem’s size bothers everybody,” coach Mark Few said. “That’s why I think he’s the conference defensive player of the year. You don’t have to help him … and he was very good on (Stephen) Holt’s ball screens.”
The Gaels made 12 field goals; GU 32. Holt was 0 of 6 from the floor, 10 of 10 at the FT line. He scored just 9 points, six below his average, in the first meeting.
“Because he’s expected to do so much,” guard Kevin Pangos said of GU’s success defending Holt. “We just don’t give him anything easy. Five guys playing against 1 or 2 on ball screens and then recovering.”
Several Zags guarded Holt, including Gary Bell Jr. and Kyle Dranginis, the latter has been dealing with a hip pointer since the LMU game on GU’s Senior Night. The injury limited Dranginis’ ability to chase San Diego’s Johnny Dee around numerous screens last week.
—Few doesn’t spend much time sorting out team resumes and NCAA Tournament bracket projections.
“I just know if you win the league, this league as good as it’s been this year, it’s hard to do this on the road, it’s hard to do it at home with how balanced our league is,” he said. “To win it by a couple games is quite a statement.”
—The Zags showed resiliency after last week’s rugged road trip.
“I think we were playing as individuals,” Pangos said of last week. “We weren’t playing with the right mentality, complaining about calls sometimes. We just changed our mentality and made it happen instead of hoping it would happen.”
“I wish we had done this the weekend before but maybe we had to go through that to get to this point,” Few said. “I thought we were the most aggressive team both nights.”
Gaels coach Randy Bennett said Gonzaga tracked down every 50-50 ball in the first half. GU lost majority of the 50-50s last week.
“Guys took responsibility for what they weren’t doing in those games (last week) and as a team we grew,” Sam Dower Jr. said. “We knew what we had to do here. Big things were at stake. We came in and put our hard hats on and came ready to work.”
—Karnowski got off to a bit of a slow start but eventually finished with 10 points, six boards and two blocks – right in line with his season averages. Two of his field goals came on moves to his right hand.
“The coaches gave us great scouting reports,” he said. “We got prepared. We just did what we had to do. We played physical, really hard, that was the key.”
Karnowski said he tries to make the talented Waldow “shoot over me, and having the guards coming over helps me.”
Karnowski said his ankle was “OK” in warm-ups. “It’ll be sore tonight, but I’ll be all right,” he said.
—Dozens of plays symbolized Saint Mary’s frustration but one stood out. After an official review, Gonzaga was left with 1 second on the shot clock instead of 3. Pangos broke free underneath and David Stockton hit him with the pass for a layup and a 25-11 lead with 7:10 remaining.
STATS OF NOTE
—Gonzaga beat the Gaels by a combined 50 points in two games. If both teams win their openers, they’ll meet again in the WCC Tournament semifinals.
“I’m not even thinking in those terms,” Bennett said. “We have so much more to worry about than them. We’ve got to figure a way to shoot better, (up to) 24 percent.”
—GU finished with 17 assists, including two by Karnowski and one by Dower. Gerard Coleman and Drew Barham each had one.
—SMC’s five senior starters made 2 of 21 shots. “Even on a bad night, you’re never that bad,” Bennett said. “I didn’t think we competed very well against Portland and I thought we were worse tonight. That’s unacceptable. We have to fix that. It’s leadership. We have to fix that.”
—Pangos played 34 minutes. No other Zag logged more than 26.
Pangos, on whether he thought it was possible to be up by 34 points at Saint Mary’s: “No, not exactly, but if felt good. I’m not going to complain.”
Bennett: “You may not play well and you may lose. You can get beat by 10 points or something, but you cannot bring that kind of effort and expect that to be acceptable. We did not bring a good enough effort across the board. Our team did not. We did not play hard enough. We did not play hard enough against Portland. You get what you tolerate. We’ll try to fix that tomorrow.”
Few: “We just spread them out, just like we did in Spokane, found each other and trusted each other. We had a couple turnovers to start the game and choked that off and played really efficient basketball.”
Dower: “We weren’t trying to score on the first option, we weren’t trying to force things. We were trying to go through our plays, waiting for them to mess up on defense and then we’ll take advantage of it.”
Pangos, on everyone contributing: “That’s what a true team is, the teams that are successful at the end of the year. For us to figure it out on this road trip is big and hopefully we can keep it going. We just can’t relax now. Just because we did it on one weekend it doesn’t automatically happen on all the rest. We just have to grow and take this with us.”
Holt: “We just jumped the fight, plain and simple. They’re a good team, but we’re also a good team. You can’t jump the fight in this type of game.”