Zags wilt under spotlight’s glare
Long after ESPN had lost most of its audience on what turned out to be College GrimDay for Gonzaga, a camera captured the day’s most revealing image.
Watching from the bench as the Bulldogs showed their only real siccum of the evening in a lamentably late rally: Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin and Austin Daye.
“It’s not a great time of the year to be learning lessons,” sighed coach Mark Few.
Not a great way to learn them, either.
The danger of marrying up with a Memphis for a basketball game, moving it into the big barn downtown to treat more of the town folks and coaxing in the Bob-and-pony show to do TV is that you risk getting shown up, exposed or humiliated – or all of the above, as what happened to the Bulldogs in a 68-50 Memphis massacre at the Arena.
Of course, the Bulldogs walk that high wire with a handful of their non-conference games every season and only on exceedingly rare occasions have they hit the pavement below with such a splat.
But never in Spokane. Not like this.
Not for years – 18 of them to be exact, not quite to the day. Gonzaga absorbed a 24-point drubbing from West Coast Conference rival Pepperdine back in 1991 in the old Kennel – the program in those days just a season removed from a 20-loss nadir.
If you’re the Zags, that’s the sort of nugget you’d just as soon not unearth.
Speaking of nuggets, remember the giddy scouting report on this year’s Bulldogs – the one about having six players who can get you 20 points on any given night?
Well, not against these Memphis guys.
And remember this being the year that the Zags were Final Four material?
Would you settle for the second round right about now?
Just as expectations may have been shed Saturday night, the Tigers were there to try them on.
“I think we’re one of the best teams in the country,” said freshman Tyreke Evans, whose move to point guard has made that so. “A Final Four team.”
They shouldn’t get any dissenting votes from the Zags, who trailed by 26 with 8:44 remaining, who needed a run of five straight makes shortly thereafter to nudge their field-goal percentage up to 36.7 for the game, whose effectiveness on the glass was reminiscent of a bug’s on a windshield. The Bulldogs may have been co-conspirators in this collapse, but the Tigers were the instigators.
“I don’t know what it is that Gonzaga does to my team,” said Memphis coach John Calipari, “but we again stepped up and played like it was our Super Bowl.”
The mystery is why the Zags didn’t punch back in this their one last chance against a ranked team to make a good impression on the seeding commissars of Selection Sunday – and what they intend to do about it.
With all the gifts and weapons they do have, the Bulldogs received negative – or invisible – games from four of their five starters, and just slightly better than that from forward Josh Heytvelt. This is why Few finally turned to subs Micah Downs, Demetri Goodson and Ira Brown and stuck with them in a late surge that gave the sellout crowd of 11,339 something to feel good about.
“If you want to be out on the floor, you’d better be doing the right things,” Daye said. “The starters definitely didn’t do enough to stay out there. We didn’t rebound well; we didn’t even have a lot of energy.”
Or, really, anything. Bouldin, who had hiked his scoring average from 11 points a game before New Year’s to 17 since, didn’t score in the first 26 minutes. Pargo, who has struggled since a late-game meltdown in Seattle against UConn, turned the ball over four times in the span of 21/2 minutes. Daye was erased by older, wiser and thicker Robert Dozier.
“A loss is a loss, but with so much focus on this game for me to play the way I did, it’s pretty embarrassing,” Pargo said. “I was happy for the guys who came in at the end and were able to stay focused and play hard in a game where we didn’t produce at all.
“It’s just heart-breaking.”
The last time Pargo’s heart – and the collective one of the Zags – was broken was in that overtime loss to UConn – and two more stumbles, against Portland State and Utah, followed. With a road trip starting at struggling Saint Mary’s coming up, Gonzaga cannot afford an extended sulk.
“We talked about that,” Daye said. “We have to make sure we bounce back and do the right things and not dwell on this loss the way we did when (the UConn loss) happened.”
There will be plenty of dwellers as it is – those who watched in person and across the nation.
“This is a group, even 22 games into the season, that you don’t want to make sweeping generalizations about – positive or negative,” Few said. “But it’s unfortunate it happened here and now.
“The crowd was great – they were ready. The fact GameDay was out here was a tremendous thing for our program and city. But we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain.”
Which made it a GrimDay, indeed.