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Zags draw energy from Baylor win

The exhale in Spokane would have registered 13 on the Beaufort Scale if it went that high. In any case, Marquise Carter felt it – heard it – all the way down in Dallas.

Gonzaga had outlasted ninth-ranked Baylor in the Bears’ backyard, the Zags’ first win over a ranked opponent in 10 tries over 22 months. Steven Gray missed the last 25 minutes with back spasms. Elias Harris played just 18 because of foul trouble. The lineup on the floor at the end had the combined firepower of 28 points per game and included two newcomers with less than 300 minutes of major college playing time between them, and a walk-on.

In a season fraught with disappointment, frustration and re-assessment, the Zags had managed to find the perfect gift for everyone on their Christmas list: a hurricane-force sigh of relief.

“I know a lot of people felt that way, but I don’t think we did,” said Carter, who made the clinching free throws. “It was a weight off and we needed it, but it’s something to build on, not an end result.”

Good answer.

As much as these Zags needed a breakthrough, they need momentum and the familiar Gonzaga mindset that such achievements – while never guaranteed – to an extent are a required part of the uniform.

If he didn’t grasp that before, Carter gained an understanding on the plane ride to Dallas.

“I was watching ‘Decade of Excellence,’ ” he said, referencing the in-house DVD scrapbook that chronicles Gonzaga’s rise in the college basketball world. “I got a feel for the program’s history and what it’s all about.

“This game was just getting the engine started back up. We messed up and lost a few games and that’s been frustrating, but we just have to get back to the way we need to play.”

The opportunity for reinforcement, for both the Zags and Carter, comes as quickly as this evening when Xavier visits the McCarthey Athletic Center. Backsliding is not recommended.

No one seems more determined to avoid it as Carter, who among the Zags’ 2010 recruits was expected to make the most immediate impact but until Saturday had looked more like a lost soul. He was playing just 11 minutes and scoring less than 3 points a game, much of it in the wipeout stages against overmatched opponents. Then he got up at a team meeting and spoke about his damaged confidence, promised better – and turned in a steady, 13-point effort in relief of Gray.

Until then, it was shaping up as a particularly abject lesson in the folly of getting too worked up over a recruit’s name, vitals, stats and testimonials – which, really, are all any of us have to go on – even if they include something as substantial as scoring 35 points for Three Rivers in the title game of the national junior college tournament.

Still, the Zags’ talent scouts saw what they saw, and expected it to translate to this level. And now perhaps it is.

“I think he’s getting to the point where he’s trying to make plays and be assertive and just deal with the consequences,” said coach Mark Few. “I think he was pretty reticent before that and it was really hurting him.

“The biggest challenge for us has been trying to get him out of second gear. He has a really good feel for the game if he can just peel through those layers and take advantage of that feel, and that’s on him.”

The good news? Even as a heralded recruit, Carter knows it’s “on him.”

“The hardest part, really, has come from off the court – family members and such telling me I should be playing more, doing this, doing that,” he said. “It’s been hard not playing as much as I did in JC – but I understood why. I knew I needed work. I knew I wasn’t playing the way I needed to.”

Wise counsel came from his brother, a former University of Oklahoma player now playing professionally in France – who lived some of what Carter’s enduring now. Nate Carter starred for two seasons at UC Riverside before transferring to play at Oklahoma for Kelvin Sampson – and struggled to average six points a game his junior year. That plummeted to 4.4 through OU’s non-conference games in 2007 before he turned around his game, averaging 16. 5 in Big 12 play.

“With him, he and (Sampson) butted heads and didn’t really get along,” Carter said, “and a new coach (Jeff Capel) helped him turn it around. So that’s different, but it was kind of the same thing – he just had to keep working through it and be patient.”

So there’s a template in the family, at least. Maybe that’s worth a sigh lower on the scale – like a fresh breeze.

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