Blanchette: Meech meets Zags’ high expectations
PORTLAND – On their way to the interview podium at the Rose Garden on Saturday, three Gonzaga Bulldogs – including hero du jour Demetri Goodson – and coach Mark Few stopped outside the Courtside Club, where fat cats nosh during NBA games.
There they peered through the glass at a big-screen TV replaying the frantic and fantastic final moments of the Zags’ wild 83-81 victory over Western Kentucky – the victory that sends them to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament one more time.
They inhaled it all.
They admired the tip-in by WKU’s Steffphon Pettigrew that tied the game (“an amazing effort,” said Matt Bouldin). They marveled again at their elfin freshman’s nervy drive upcourt for the short game-winning bank shot with less than a second remaining. But mostly they cackled about the celebration it set off, with Jeremy Pargo and Micah Downs immediately smothering the little one they call Meech and reinforcements quickly arriving from the Bulldogs bench.
And it drove home that with the ever-increasing demands and expectations that surround this program, this particular group of Zags hasn’t been allowed all that many opportunities to feel good about itself.
So they’ll enjoy this and watch every single replay and laugh together, at least until the reality of preparing to play North Carolina on Friday in Memphis, Tenn., sets in.
It drove home something else, something that’s been missing from Gonzaga basketball for a spell.
The easy comparison was Casey Calvary’s tip-in that beat Florida and sent the Zags to the Elite Eight in 1999 (“that’s 1 and this is 1A,” Few said). But maybe a more pertinent connection is to be made between Goodson’s brilliant finisher and the shot that Blake Stepp had carom off at the end of the double-overtime classic against Arizona in 2003.
That, too, was a bank shot, almost from same spot. That, too, was with a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake. That, too, was a game of incredible shot-making by both teams, not just the game of the day at the NCAAs but a game for the ages.
So in that respect, it was atonement, six years later.
Richard Fox, the analyst on Gonzaga’s radio broadcast, was on the floor for the Arizona epic and saw the parallels – and also the differences.
“When Blake had that shot, he probably had an extra second to think about whether he should bank it or not, and that can be tough,” Fox said. “I don’t think Meech had any time to do anything but what he did.”
Which was this:
“I got the ball and Pargo was calling for it and I kind of ignored him – not trying to be selfish, but I was just determined to go find somebody,” he said. “Then the lane opened up and I thought, ‘I’m taking it in.’ I shot it, it went in and then the celebration was crazy. I felt like I was dreaming.
“You always dream about making game-winners. But this is the NCAA tournament, so I would never have dreamed that.”
All the better, according to Pargo.
“We won a game with a shot by a guy that no one else expected to take it,” he said. “But it was the right shot by the right guy at the right time. The stage he did it on was unbelievable – and I’m more excited for him than I am for myself or for the team for getting the win.”
If there was an irony, it’s that Goodson was in the game for defensive purposes.
In the first half, WKU’s Orlando Mendez-Valdez had strafed the Zags for 17 points in the first 91/2 minutes, at which point Few sicked Goodson on him. For the rest of the half, Mendez-Valdez got off but a single shot, which missed.
So when he and A.J. Slaughter heated up and brought the Hilltoppers back from a nine-point deficit in the last 2:15, Few took out Josh Heytvelt and added Goodson to the defensive mix for WKU’s last possession – knowing the increased risk of giving up an offensive rebound, which is exactly what happened.
But the Bulldogs staff didn’t have a problem with Goodson being the man with the ball at the end, either.
“He has a knack,” Few said. “He is easily our best finisher around the rim as a guard, and we have some great finishers. This kid has a knack for making shots over bigger guys.”
“And he’s also a really good decision maker,” added assistant Leon Rice. “Any way you slice it, we weren’t going to draw up anything in a timeout to get a better shot than that.”
Goodson is Pargo’s roommate and understudy, his playing time limited to about 13 minutes a game by the glut of Gonzaga’s veteran guards – a circumstance the 5-foot-11 jet from Houston found discouraging at first.
“Being a freshman you always want to play because you were the main guy on your high school team and you figure college is going to be the same thing,” he said. “But then I realized I’d have to wait my turn just like Jeremy did and try to learn from him.”
And what did Pargo try to impart?
“Take advantage of every opportunity you get,” Pargo said. “Don’t let moments slip away. He definitely didn’t do that tonight, did he?”
This was just his first. Chances are there will be much more of Meech.