Consider this akin to those after-life experiences.
The “I saw a very bright light” kind of a deal.
Really, it’s just the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament, but to the Gonzaga Bulldogs, it’s an opportunity to climb off the slab, take the tags off their toes and go dancing.
“We had been pronounced dead,” GU coach Dan Fitzgerald said of a time during the season when the Bulldogs stood an embarrassing 0-6 in WCC play.
Now? “We’re 120 minutes away from the (NCAA) tournament,” Fitzgerald said.
He’s referring to the automatic bid that goes to the winner of the WCC tourney.
And perhaps the most important part of GU’s winning of seven of the last eight conference games was to convince the players that they could come away with three tournament wins in March in Toso Pavilion.
That “walk toward the light” starts for GU (18-8) tonight at 8 with a meeting against a very difficult opponent - San Diego (11-15), a team that knocked the favored Bulldogs out of the tourney in last year’s semifinals, and that split with GU during the regular season.
San Diego won by a 10-point margin at home in January, while the Bulldogs pulled away to a 71-63 win last Saturday in the Martin Centre.
“The teams are very, very evenly matched,” Fitzgerald said. “Their perimeter guys are more experienced than ours and that’s scary. So the difference of the game will be the inside guys - who plays better there.”
In Spokane, posts Paul Rogers and Scott Snider had big games, the duplication of which would go a long way to propelling GU into Sunday’s semifinals.
“They’re really physical and they know our cuts so well that they make it tough to run our offense,” Snider said. “They’re probably my least-favorite team to play.”
First-year USD coach Brad Holland, who racked up plenty of tournament experience as a guard for UCLA and the Los Angeles Lakers, expects this match to be as competitive as the first two.
“Our kids feel confident playing Gonzaga because we’ve had some success against them lately,” Holland said. “San Diego was able to beat Gonzaga a couple times last year, so, for us, the matchups are strong and we’ve had success with them in the past.”
All-league guard Doug Harris (17.6 points per game) and Sean Flannery (13.8 ppg) give GU the most problems, and both like to challenge from 3-point range.
One of Fitzgerald’s concerns after Friday’s shoot-around at Toso was that several important players - such as Kyle Dixon, Rogers and Snider - have not played in a WCC tournament.
“It’s a great environment for a competitor, but it’s another step that’s hard to emulate,” Fitzgerald said.
The Bulldogs have talked only of the meeting with San Diego, Fitzgerald said, but the coach himself has wondered about future possibilities.
“It’s not impossible for us to go to postseason at 20-9,” Fitzgerald said, suggesting that two wins and a loss in the WCC finals might be enough for the Bulldogs to earn their second straight National Invitation Tournament bid.
History is working a bit in GU’s favor as the No. 4 seed - which the Bulldogs are today - has won five straight WCC tournament openers against the No. 5 seed.
Sunday’s WCC men’s semifinals and women’s finals will be carried on Prime Sports Northwest.
Other WCC openers
No. 2 Portland (19-7) vs. No. 7 Pepperdine (8-18): Portland had its best WCC finish, but Pepperdine pulled off an impressive upset of league champ Santa Clara last Saturday. The Pilots swept the season series.
No. 1 Santa Clara (21-5) vs. No. 8 Loyola Marymount (12-14): The top seed has never lost an opener in WCC history, but the host has also never won the tournament title. LMU has five players averaging in double figures, but SCU offsets that with the league’s best player, guard Steve Nash.
No. 3 Saint Mary’s (17-9) vs. No. 6 San Francisco (10-18): Saint Mary’s swept the season series - both by lopsided margins. USF leads the league in scoring, while SMC is second in WCC play in scoring defense.
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