John Blanchette: Pargo, Zags defend their turf

Here’s a head fake from Jeremy Pargo we didn’t bite on earlier this week, during the angst-filled run-up to the Battle of the Bottom of the Top 25 between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s:

“Just another game,” he insisted.

To make sure, we checked in after he’d dribbled away the final seconds of the Bulldogs’ 88-76 victory, shared one of those pull-in half-hugs with the Gaels’ Tron Smith and huddled with his teammates at half court to celebrate what will be at least a share of another West Coast Conference basketball championship.

And there he was, standing atop the TV crew’s table at McCarthey Athletic Center, pumping his fists and slapping five with some equally jazzed Kennel Clubbers.

Just another game?

“Anything with the word ‘championship’ on it is always a big deal to us,” Pargo allowed.

As we suspected.

This is no bulletin at Gonzaga, where the Zags have now won eight straight WCC titles of the regular-season round-robin variety. There is a finale Monday against Santa Clara that will decide whether it is outright or shared, but that pending result did not mitigate the accomplishment of Saturday night.

And it prompted Gonzaga coach Mark Few to recite some well-rehearsed gospel.

“The entire world wants to focus from Day 1 on the NCAA tournament,” he said, “but winning a league championship is what it’s all about.

“It shows grit and toughness. It shows you took everybody’s best shot, that you won on the road and won tough games like this one. And it’s especially true this year because it’s the first year there’s been another Top 25 team in the league. You win it this year, you’ve done a heck of a job.”

And when you’ve done it for eight years?

Here’s something to consider. In the history of Division I basketball – among conferences that are still in existence – there are only three such streaks that are longer: UCLA (13 in the Pac-10) in the age of Wooden, UNLV (10 in the Big West) in the age of Tarkanian and Kentucky (nine in the SEC) in the age of Rupp.

That the Gaels had a chance to put an end to this and didn’t – in history’s only meeting of two Top 25 WCC teams – was surely a source of disappointment, but perhaps not as bitter as you might think.

“We lost to a good team when they played very well,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. “I would feel worse if they’d played bad and we didn’t get it done.”

Rising to the occasion was certainly in order, this being an unprecedented occasion.

So several participants did. Saint Mary’s Diamon Simpson was the definition of unstoppable efficiency. Matt Bouldin rescued the Zags with spectacular first-half shooting. Patrick Mills of the Gaels again demonstrated that he will be absolute hell on WCC opponents for three more years.

And Pargo was at a level all his own.

Two of them actually. He didn’t have a shot or a point in a first-half abridged by fouls. Then he took over the game with 18 points in the second half.

“He separated that game,” Bennett agreed. “The first half, he got in foul trouble – and that’s the best way to guard him, if he’s on the bench. He’s that guy that when the game is big, he’s big.”

The 3-pointer that got him untracked may have been a bit curious and the transition 3 that followed in GU’s breakaway spurt maybe a little too bold. But you know what they say about playmakers and why they’re called that. Every Pargo basket was meaningful, especially the in-traffic 8-footer with 73 seconds left that settled the issue. Just as pretty was a sequence he started – Pargo-to-Micah Downs-to-Abdullahi Kuso-for-a-dunk – after a rare Simpson turnover moments before.

“He made big play after big play and smart play after smart play,” Few said. “Obviously, he was a huge key to getting that cushion but the biggest thing is that he managed the game.

“He played like the MVP of the league, which I think he is.”

This was a deceiving Gonzaga performance. The Zags haven’t been this efficient on offense all season, but in allowing 76 points may not have appeared at the top of their defensive game.

Yet they limited the Gaels to 40 percent shooting – 30 percent from behind the arc – and blocked eight shots while also winning on the glass. And they made the toughness stops on defense the Gaels – as mentally tough as they come – could not.

But mostly what they did is simply defend their turf – not their home court, strictly, but their reign over the conference. The Gaels have spent as much time in the Top 25 as has Gonzaga this season, but they haven’t supplanted the Bulldogs by any means.

“No one’s over the hump,” Pargo pointed out, “until it happens.”

There will be more challenges, of course. And those won’t be “just another game” either.


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