MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Gonzaga bumped its head on a familiar ceiling Friday night.
One more Bulldogs season ends at what for the next few days will linger as the Bittersweet 16, surely far from the worst thing that can be said but never easy to accept in the glare of opportunity that is the NCAA basketball tournament.
Everybody wants more.
But sometimes you get exactly what you deserve.
In this case, the Zags absorbed a 98-77 flogging at the hands of North Carolina, as likely to win the national championship – maybe the most likely – of the eight surviving teams in the tournament. And they got it because they simply didn’t defend.
Or couldn’t defend?
There’s one you won’t get much agreement on.
No one ever much likes to admit that the other guys are better. Failings don’t need to go unexamined – and in our culture, never will. But blame has somehow come to be viewed as more honest and realistic than concession, when in fact it is just as often less so.
Here’s how Gonzaga coach Mark Few summed it up Friday night:
“If all 16 of us (in the Sweet 16), if we all play at the top of our game,” he said, “North Carolina wins the national championship. I just feel like when they’re playing at their highest end, they’re better than the rest of us.”
Of course, it was Gonzaga’s mandate to make the Tar Heels play at less than their best.
“And we didn’t get it done,” said guard Jeremy Pargo.
For a player not prone to understatement, this may actually qualify.
Gonzaga’s peculiar challenge was to try to slow down Carolina’s 78 rpm break – or at least disrupt the rhythm – and yet keep the game at the kind of quick tempo with which they’re most comfortable.
It never happened. The Heels made eight of their first 10 shots to only token opposition. By the third television timeout, they’d hit 18 of 27 and led by 13 points. Each time the Zags fought back, they wound up a little further away – six points after a Pargo 3, 10 after a string of seven straight points by Steven Gray, 11 after a Pargo-led 12-2 run not quite midway through the second half.
“You just have to be close enough to see them,” said GU assistant Leon Rice, “because there’s going to be enough possessions that you can still get there. And then they just run away from you.”
It was frightening how easily the Heels did it. After that last Gonzaga gasp, Bobby Frasor – a backup guard – hit a pair of uncontested 3-pointers to launch a 12-0 spurt that lasted all of 78 seconds.
“Every time we got halfway up the mountain,” sighed Pargo, “they’d hit us with a brick and knock us back down.”
The Zags didn’t always help themselves. They turned the ball over too often in the beginning, and surrendered some on the glass in the second half. But mostly, as Few said, “we could never quite get a handle on stopping them.”
When Gonzaga finally put together three defensive stops in a row late in the first half, it felt like 300.
“It’s tough to match a team that runs and does the same thing you do,” said forward Austin Daye, “when you’re making more mistakes than they are.”
It’s a given that there will be only one satisfied team at the end of college basketball’s five-month marathon, and in the initial moments after an exit it doesn’t necessarily matter much whether it’s by one point or 21, though Pargo insisted that “this game doesn’t sum up our season.”
He didn’t get an argument in his own locker room.
“This was a great season,” said guard Micah Downs. “We had some pretty steep expectations and hit a bumpy road for a bit back in December. But we ran through the conference and made it to the Sweet 16 and I’m proud of the way we played and responded, both to the expectations and the adversity.”
Here’s the other thing: The Zags joined a pretty august company of teams that were drummed out of the bracket in the round of 16. Duke, royalty’s royalty, was pasted by 23 points, and while Syracuse and Memphis kept it closer, their games were over early.
Didn’t this used to be the Sweet 16? Who fired up the drama sump? Last year, the average margin of victory in this round was 15 points; on Friday, Louisville won by 39.
As for the Zags, you want to come up big on the biggest of stages, but you don’t steal scenes from Meryl Streep. For all the talk of Gonzaga’s talent level, it isn’t close to what Carolina has.
Seven-foot Tyler Zeller is the Heels’ No. 4 big man and can barely get on the floor; he’s good enough for significant minutes at Gonzaga.
Tyler Hansbrough, the default player of the year, had 24 points and 10 rebounds and his GU rival, Josh Heytvelt, offered that, “I don’t think he played out of his mind.” And good as he is, come the next level, he may be only the third or fourth best pro from this team.
It hasn’t been often in Gonzaga’s tournament history that the Zags have come away from their final game convinced that they lost to a superior team. On this night, there was no debate.
Which should only make them want more.