March 10, 2009 in Sports

Bulldogs slap back

By The Spokesman-Review
 

LAS VEGAS – Perhaps now the Cult of Patty Mills can take five.

The statue can be decommissioned. The hosannas can be cranked down from tabernacle pitch to a respectful hum. Everybody can reclaim their brains.

A great basketball player came back to try to win a championship Monday night in the West Coast Conference tournament. He – and the Saint Mary’s Gaels – ran into something better.

A great team.

This is not meant to be a broad declaration for the ages. There are other proving grounds on the horizon for the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament, and as always they will be judged severely. But for two inspired days at the Orleans Arena, the Zags were undeniably great and undeniably a team, and perhaps even set standards against which to measure Gonzaga teams both past and future.

The 83-58 beatdown of Saint Mary’s in the championship game was equal parts spectacular and cruel, undoing the burgeoning fiction that Mills – the splendid Saint Mary’s point guard – had some borderline mystical hold on the outcome, and probably undoing the Gaels’ NCAA worthiness in the process.

Let’s just hope Eastern Washington shows them some mercy on Friday night.

If you have been out of hype range for the last month, perhaps you didn’t know that the quicksilver Mills was lighting up Gonzaga – six 3-pointers in the first half – back in Spokane on Jan. 29 when he tumbled to the court and broke his hand. He missed the rest of that game and the rematch in Moraga two weeks later, both tightly contested Gonzaga victories. Cleared to play by doctors last week, he made some bold noise about “giving back to Gonzaga what they’ve done to us this year and a number of years” and a goodly number of ESPN nimrods fueled a grassfire that the Zags were certainly in for it.

“You couldn’t not hear it,” said Gonzaga’s Jeremy Pargo, who has matched up with Mills for two years now. “You had no choice if you turned on the TV. It frustrates you to hear people on TV say that Saint Mary’s is flat out better than us.

“It was a slap in the face.”

So the Zags slapped back, with a remarkable communal performance.

A smothering defense held the Gaels to 34 percent shooting – even not figuring in Mills’ woeful 2-of-16. Six different Bulldogs scored in double figures. And the all-tournament team honored three Zags, including Micah Downs as a well-deserving MVP, but didn’t have room for one (Austin Daye) who scored 28 points on Sunday night and another (Josh Heytvelt) who had 17 in the title game with an array of soaring dunks.

“That,” said coach Mark Few, “was really good. If we just keep playing like that, we could really do some damage.”

The Gaels, predictably, were more distraught about what they saw as their own failings.

“They knew what they were playing for,” Mills said of the Zags, “and we had no idea.”

He put off suggestions that the lingering effects of his injury had anything to do with his horrid shooting – which didn’t involve just missing but forcing shots and eventually just heaving the ball in the direction of the basket. He tried to do too much, and coach Randy Bennett compounded the error by sticking with him too long and letting him shoot the Gaels out of contention.

Few was sympathetic – “it’s a tough deal, losing a great player and trying to bring him back” – but also voiced some impatience with those who wrote off the Zags in previous meetings.

“People forget, he was 0 for 8 on 2s in our place in the first half,” he said, “and I hear (ESPN analyst) Jay Bilas wax on about how they would have won. He hit six 3s, but at that time he (came in) shooting 30 percent from 3 and we weren’t playing him as a shooter. He’s a dangerous driver and a one-man fast break and we defended that well in Spokane – and why at halftime we felt pretty good.”

The Zags trailed by six at halftime in that game. Didn’t the same Gonzaga team come from nine down with 18 minutes left to beat Tennessee in Knoxville, and from nine down to beat Oklahoma State? Aren’t either of those teams arguably better than the Gaels? Why did it become such a certainty the Zags wouldn’t have made the necessary adjustment?

And has there ever been another player in the history of the WCC who has inspired quite so much reverence and myth making without actually having won anything?

Here’s something that isn’t a myth: no team has ever so dominated this tournament, with an average margin of victory of 30 points. That includes even the benchmark 1999 team, whose average spread was 20 points but didn’t play anyone with a winning record, much less one with 25 victories.

As he checked off how this pull of the handle came up all cherries, Few was especially warmed by Downs’ MVP honor – a handsome reward for a career with its share of struggle.

“We always preach to our guys, from their freshman year on up through their senior year, that it always ends up good here,” he said. “If you stick with Gonzaga, it always ends up good.”

Except for those times when it ends up great.


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