It is half past 8 and The Kennel - if you’ll sanction an indelicacy - smells like one.
We’re on the scent. It could be the seven Brando wannabes in the student seats wearing open-pit T-shirts. It could be the malodorous - some might say flammable - officiating of Groucho, Harpo and Chico, who are doing their best to dispel the myth that referees can only faint in a big-time venue.
But mostly it’s what happens when you match the sweat of two of the hardest-working teams in college basketball with that of a bandbox sellout of 4,017 slow dancers and put first place on the line.
Then again, there are going to be few nights and few sites in the West Coast Conference this winter when first place isn’t on the line.
“Hey, how about Portland?” marveled Gonzaga guard Matt Santangelo after the Bulldogs’ 78-73 victory over Santa Clara left them in a tie with the Pilots atop the WCC. “I don’t think anybody figured them.”
The figuring has been problematic to be sure. A game of lost and found.
Saint Mary’s lost its giant. USF lost some of its health and maybe a little of its nerve. Pepperdine’s trying to find an identity, Santa Clara its aim.
Which is how Gonzaga and Portland come to find themselves in first.
Still, Gonzaga coach Dan Monson remains of the mind that the road to the WCC title goes through Santa Clara - the Broncos gunning to be the first team to win four straight regular-season championships since the bad-old bandito days of USF.
And no one is getting through Santa Clara without needing an ice pack to reduce the swelling.
The Broncos are horrible at only one thing: scoring. Only once this year have they made half their shots.
So their mission is to make everyone else just as horrible at it, and they do. Find another team of 40-percent shooters that’s 14-6 right now. Amazing.
“But you can only rely so long on your defense,” sighed Broncos coach Dick Davey. “You have to make some shots.”
Eventually, the Broncos did - in the game’s final three minutes, cutting what was once a 19-point Bulldog lead to two. The Zags can be content to win on points, but the lack of a knockout punch is turning their fans on to Tagament.
And while we’re on capital Ts, Monson got the first of his career Saturday night - referee Mike Partlow taking offense when the coach began to disrobe after a particularly pungent no-call.
“Not the smartest time to get one, either,” said Monson, noting the Zags had the ball at the time.
“My complaint was, I think referees come in here and with the amount of games we’ve won, they go overboard not to be homers. I feel like they’re the most physical team in the league and they were at the line all night.”
Somebody was, anyway. The two teams shot 66 free throws and could have shot 166.
Gonzaga’s remarkable success at home - 82-7 over the past seven years - does have a curious side effect. Winning at Martin Centre has come to be taken for granted, and makes any failure on the road somehow troubling.
A co-conspirator in this is the WCC’s misbegotten schedule, which weekend after weekend pairs teams which met just few days before. Hence, the Zags blow out Saint Mary’s by 29 here and fall by three the very next time out. Likewise, Santa Clara is the next stop on the schedule.
Why the WCC is the only league in America stuck with this rotation is a mystery. But then, the WCC is determined to have every conference game on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
For Gonzaga, the problem this year is that it catches the worst side of such a schedule: three back-to-backs, with the second game on the road all three times.
“But you’ve got to approach things as a positive,” said Monson. “If we learn from the Saint Mary’s game and it helps us win a championship, then what happened down there was worth it. If the game winds up costing us, then it’s not.”
Said Santangelo, “We just have to be tougher than we’ve been in the past.”
Or something. This week, Monson is voting for better-rested. Having already prepared for Santa Clara once, he’s giving his players Monday off for recuperation.
“It’s a gamble,” he said. “But we can’t play any worse than we did the last time.”
It’s an indelicacy he won’t sanction.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review
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