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Hendrix Rises To The Task

On every highlight reel, there is The Shot. The Wallenda drive through the paint. The 3/4-court heave at the buzzer. The no-look-inbounds-save-behind-the-back-that-accidentally-finds-all-net.

At Martin Centre Saturday evening, The Shot was pre-empted by The Block.

We’re not going to overstate its impact - Gonzaga wailed on Saint Mary’s 80-57, and would have block or no block. The Gaels left their game somewhere between here and Moraga, while the Bulldogs ditched theirs and found Kentucky’s, or somebody’s. The resulting eclipse was committed to video, which the Gaels will have to view projected through a pinhole or risk sauted corneas.

No, The Block was more symbolic - or symptomatic, take your pick.

The Gaels’ starting center is a promising Gulliver named Brad Millard, a sophomore from Seattle who stands 7-foot-3 and weighs 345 pounds and - should his development ever warrant it - will not be drafted into the pros but rather rezoned. So large is he that he’ll get eight points and four rebounds most nights just by accident, which is pretty much how he got them Saturday.

Millard picked up two early fouls and trundled off to the bench, but as the blowout blossomed Gaels coach Ernie Kent summoned him to try to stop the bleeding. At the time, the biggest Zag on the floor was Bakari Hendrix - at 6-8 a full seven inches shorter.

About 2-1/2 minutes til halftime, with Hendrix fronting the big fella in the post, Millard snagged a lob pass and turned to the basket. Kevin Williams was there first with some helpside defense - and when Millard finally went up with the ball, Hendrix had made his way around to rise up and swat it down.

You’d have thought he’d capped Mount St. Helens.

Never mind that the Gaels chased down the ball, drew a foul and made two free throws. The roar from the bleachers - still missing the Gonzaga student body, which doesn’t return until this week - didn’t subside until intermission. Matt Santangelo cranked it up by driving a layup over the mitt of the big guy, Williams revved it again by simply snatching the ball out of Millard’s hands and finally Mike Leasure threw in an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer.

The scoreboard read 41-20, Gonzaga.

Fair warning: it may never get this good again.

This view won’t find a second in the Bulldogs locker room, of course, where it’s not fashionable to be impressed - especially with yourself. Fans may have still be high-fiving one another on their way out the door over The Block, but not Hendrix.

“Just because he’s big doesn’t make him a good basketball player,” Hendrix said, speaking of Millard though the pronoun could have been generic. ‘He’s a man just like me.

“During warmups, those guys were making a lot of noise. We don’t like that. When you come in here, you can show a little more respect than that.”

Seems reasonable. The Zags have only won 69 of their last 75 games at The Kennel.

Of course, the Gaels had come in with the best record in the West Coast Conference - 11-3, the three losses coming by a total of five points. Their schedule has been representative, if not fearsome, and so they had reason to feel good about themselves.

But not that good.

“When you’re the leader of the pack, so to speak, and people feel you are the team to beat, they’re going to be ready to play you,” said Kent. “No one’s going to be down. They’ll be gunning for you. We did not accept that challenge.”

Uh, well, we’re not talking the Bulls here. The Gaels will be in the hunt, for sure, but so will five other teams.

In fact, we’ve looked it up - and there’s nothing in the WCC by-laws which says Gonzaga can’t finish atop the standings two years in a row.

You’ll never get coach Dan Fitzgerald to say it, and the fact that five of GU’s first seven players had a grand total of 18 minutes of Division I minutes coming into the season would seem to speak against it, too.

But the Zags have weathered the loss of Paul Rogers - the WCC’s best returning big man, who broke his foot four games into the season - far better than anyone should have expected.

How much better they might be with the 7-foot Rogers is grist for speculation. But it’s unlikely the two newcomers who share his minutes, Axel Dench and Jeremy Eaton, would have developed as fast. Hendrix may not have evolved into the resident tough guy in the Dale Haaland-Scott Snider mold. And a youngster like Richie Frahm - a true freshman who lit up the Gaels for 20 points - probably wouldn’t have been asked for bigger contributions.

“We run stuff to who we have,” said Fitzgerald. “We try to get the ball to the right people and we were geared to getting the ball to Paul. Well, now a lot of guys are getting the ball.”

And just getting it, period.

“Now if you ask our young guys if they understand, they blink,” Fitzgerald said. “The first month or so they just stared at you glassy-eyed, but now they blink so something’s sinking in.”

The possibilities, perhaps.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review


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