Gonzaga took all the guesswork – other than seeding, opponent and location -- out of Selection Sunday by winning the WCC Tournament title over BYU on Tuesday. Had the Zags lost, most pundits still had them in the NCAA field as an at-large team but it would have been an uncomfortable few days waiting for Sunday’s announcement. (I’m guessing an 8 or 9 seed, I’m pulling for a trip to San Diego).
GU did it with a near flawless first half, leading by as many as 21 before settling for a 17-point edge at the break. The cushion helped the Zags withstand BYU’s second-half rally for a 75-64 victory.
Here’s my game story, John Blanchette’s column and Colin Mulvany’s photos. The view from Utah here, here, here, here and here. The Zags doubled up on championships as Gonzaga's women thumped BYU. My game story here and Colin's photos.
Onward for my day-after BYU post.
--Gonzaga had two MVP candidates in Sam Dower Jr. and David Stockton. In fact, coach Mark Few said he’d have gone with co-MVPs. My ballot listed Stockton as MVP, mainly because of his last-second layup against Santa Clara that helped GU survive a quarterfinal scare. He also had 21 points vs. Saint Mary’s and was rock solid last night.
Seniors Stockton, Dower and Drew Barham had strong tournaments.
“He (coach Few) always emphasizes (senior leadership),” Stockton said. “Maybe we saw that light at the end of the tunnel. (Dower) showed up and I showed up.”
Stockton and Dower, long-time roommates, enjoyed needling each other after the game. Dower had some stretches where he missed from close range, but he made 23 straight free throws in the first two games -- which adds to the scoring column but not to Stockton’s assist totals. (I’ll refrain from repeating my stance that passes leading to free throws need to be rewarded statistically. Oops, too late).
Asked about their on-court connection, Stockton poked, “You mean like the connection of him missing bunnies for me. I’m kidding. He’s got great hands. He looks like he’s sleeping but you know he’s ready. I trust throwing anything to him. He’s a naturally gifted scorer; it’s easy assists from a point guard’s point of view.”
Said Dower of Stockton swatting Anson Winder’s layup attempt: “That should be a SportsCenter Top 10. Little David, a block like that … I don’t even think I have a block like that.”
Few chimed in as well.
“I don’t think we need to be encouraging it” from the media,” Few cracked. “We want our 5-6 guys stripping guys, taking charges.”
-- Gary Bell Jr., with 41 points in three games, had the credentials to make the All-Tournament team. GU (Dower, Stockton) and BYU (Kyle Collinsworth, Tyler Haws) took up four of the five spots. USF’s Cole Dickerson was the other selection.
Bell has been noticeably more aggressive driving to the basket in recent games. He hit three 3s last night, but his first basket was off dribble penetration 40 seconds after tipoff.
“I just felt like it’s been there,” Bell said. “We worked on it in practice.”
Bell, and other GU guards, got the memo from the coaching staff late in the regular season that runners and floaters are not the preferred field-goal attempt off the bounce.
“Coach (Few) called it punting when you just throw it up in there,” Bell said.
--Whereas last year’s team experienced little turbulence during the non-conference, conference and WCC Tournament, this crew absorbed injuries that sidelined or slowed its top three scorers, flu bugs and deflating losses (Dayton, K-State, at Portland, at Memphis, at BYU and at San Diego).
The Bulldogs showed resolve with road wins against Pacific and Saint Mary’s to clinch the WCC title by two games. They went 4-0 at home to open the WCC with assorted bench players stepping into the spotlight at key times.
“We put the pedal to the metal,” Dower said. “Even though we had guys hurt, we had others step up. That’s what’s so good about our team. We always had other guys step up.”
The result has been additional depth, a more hardened group and a somewhat star-less outfit that tends to rely on each other more than a single individual.
“This team has had way more ups and downs than last year, which I think can be a good thing for us,” Pangos said. “After that weekend where we lost two on the road (at BYU, at USD) everyone kind of changed their mentality on things. It was a great week of growth for our team.”
Said Bell: “We had injuries, people sick. We overcome all of that and now we’re playing our best basketball when we need to.”
STATS OF NOTE
--Karnowski made 9 of 13 FTs in three tourney games. He made two FTs with 2:08 left to put Gonzaga up 68-58 vs. BYU. He entered the tournament at 51 percent.
--Dower had made 23 of 23 free throws in the tournament (and 24 straight overall), but he missed all three of his attempts vs. BYU.
--Eleven of Haws’ 24 points came at the FT line. He was 6 of 14 from the field.
--Haws and Collinsworth combined for seven turnovers.
--Gonzaga had 10 turnovers, six by bigs, but Karnowski had three assists and Dower one. BYU finished with six assists.
--BYU won the glass, 42-31. The Cougars had 15 offensive boards to GU’s 3, but BYU also had a lot more opportunities with 38 missed shots to GU’s 23. BYU had just scored eight second-chance points.
--Cougars guard Matt Carlino had a rough night. He was 3 of 12 from the field, 0 of 5 on 3s. He finished with eight points, two assists and two turnovers before fouling out late.
Few on whether BYU is an NCAA Tournament team: “Without a doubt.”
Stockton: “If we play with our defense and we’re scrappy we can play with anybody.”
BYU coach Dave Rose: “Gonzaga was really good, especially in the first 10 minutes of the game. Our guys battled but they made it tough on the offensive end.”
Few on winning another WCC title: “It never gets old, it never gets old.”
Stockton on Karnowski burying two free throws late in the game: “That’s my roommate (on the road). That’s what I expect from him. He’s had that in him since he’s got here. For him to step up was huge for us.”
Few on Stockton: “I’m telling you this isn’t the first week David has stepped up. He’s had game after game after game this year where we’ve been in trouble and he literally carries us. I thought there should have been co-MVPs down here.”
Rose on Stockton: “His penetration was hard to deal with. He’s really crafty and really fast, and right now he’s playing with a lot of confidence. That’s a huge factor in how they got open shots all night long.”