PORTLAND – If Mark Few heard it once since Sunday, he heard it a dozen times.
“Everybody’s talking to me and our guys saying, ‘I won’t be down Thursday, but I’ll be down Saturday,’ ” Few said, shaking his head. “They just don’t get it.”
Unless, of course, the coach’s irony antenna was on the fritz, or he was being spoon-fed a dose of reverse psychology by Gonzaga fans willing to try anything.
At any rate, a sort of expectational schizophrenia seemed to settle over the Zagmania’s many convalescents in the ramp-up to Thursday’s first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, an almost toxic mix of – what did Nuke LaLoosh call it? – fear and ignorance.
The ignorance: a raging overconfidence that the fourth-seeded Bulldogs had been given a bye into the second round even if it said “Akron” on the companion bracket line.
The fear: that the Zags would never see the second round again, no matter who the opponent.
Neither notion was particularly rational, although the Bulldogs themselves couldn’t help but harbor a few doubts before zitzing the Zips 77-64 at the Rose Garden and living to play another day.
“I definitely think it should have been in our minds if it wasn’t,” said senior guard Jeremy Pargo. “Everyone in uniform experienced first-round exits the last two years except Demetri Goodson, who’s just a freshman. That’s one of the things I talked about at halftime – let’s not have another letup and let down on each other, give up another first-round game against a team we should beat.”
So all you hard-liners out there: They got the message.
Not that the first-round losses of the last two years didn’t weigh on the Zags anyway, but over time the public consensus – and a loud one – was that they had become underachievers, despite being a lower seed in 2007 that had endured late-season trauma and last year found themselves playing in the backyard of the tournament’s designated Cinderella.
Call it the cost of being more than a midmajor.
Excuses get rather thin, to the point this year that the Zags weren’t accorded any. Not with a gifted and healthy lineup, a high seed, an offensively challenged opponent that had to pull a few upsets just to get here – and the happy circumstance of playing an hour plane ride from home.
So no wonder Josh Heytvelt peeked at the scoreboard midway through the second half to see the Zips up by one and thought, “Oh, no.”
“I thought we were winning and we were still down,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Wait, we’re supposed to be winning right now.’ I really didn’t want it to end up being a grinder at the end.”
He believed GU should be ahead because the Zips had gone the previous 5 minutes without a field goal. That sort of thing usually breaks open a tight game, but in this case the Zags’ still-doubted defense needed to goose the temperature a few degrees to let loose the avalanche. In the space of 3 minutes, Gonzaga went from down one to up 12 – the defining shot being Heytvelt’s 3-pointer, which he celebrated with raised arms as he backpedaled down the court.
“I didn’t even know how much we were winning by – it just felt good,” he said. “I’d probably missed my last four jumpers before that and to get that to drop was something off my back – like, ‘I can shoot a jumper. It still works.’ ”
This was the general tone of the Bulldogs’ locker room – burden-shedding relief, something a little less chip-on-the-shoulder than the bold statement that steamrolled Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament.
But that’s the tension that pervades the NCAAs.
“This is a high, high pressure deal,” said Few, who was gratified that the Bulldogs seemed to confront it with no particular panic.
Their poise was reflected in any number of ways, but none more so than the way they kept getting to the foul line. GU’s 31 free throws tied a season high (and the 26 makes are a season best).
“They foul a lot, and they have all year,” Few said. “We just needed to keep attacking and get ourselves in the bonus, which is what you have to do with them. They can frustrate you to the point where you don’t drive or post up anymore but we stayed with it.”
For the top, oh, 16 seeds, the NCAAs have a peculiar vibe that it’s not so much about winning as it is not losing. And, true, beating Akron will not claim prominent status in Gonzaga’s NCAA scrapbook – though losing to the Zips would possibly have been Bulldogs’ biggest shame.
Which is not to say Thursday’s game was without celebration. Pargo made sure of that with a thunderous, soaring dunk over poor Steve McNees of Akron – the replays of which on the Rose Garden big screens elicited ever deeper oohs and ahs. His teammates figure on being reminded of its proportions by the creator regularly.
“I hope so,” said Heytvelt. “That means we’ll still be here.”
Now he gets it.