LAS VEGAS – His right elbow was Saran wrapped in ice, where before a sleeve of white tape had buttressed the joint bruised by a crash to the floor both spectacular and horrifying.
The tips of the nails on the middle and ring fingers of his right hand looked as if they’d been dinner for a passing wolverwine, and the blood from them spotted both his jersey and his shorts. Either that went undetected by officials as the game went on – by rule, it requires fresh laundry – or they simply shrugged and decided they could live with any gore short of a Tarantino movie.
In other words, Steven Gray was a mess.
And he may never have looked so good.
A thousand theories get floated each and every Gonzaga basketball season, most of them crackpot and virtually all of them such generalizations that they leak value before they’re finished being uttered. One that may have some legs suggests that while Matt Bouldin is unquestionably the Bulldogs’ marquee player and that Zags have never really had someone like Elias Harris, they go as the understated Gray goes – at least on those nights when the line between winning and losing is thinnest.
A night such as Sunday, when the Zags worked Loyola Marymount 77-62 to advance to the championship game of the West Coast Conference Tournament for the 13th straight year – 15th in the last 16.
A night Gonzaga coach Mark Few will remember for “one of the best performances I have ever seen (from) one of our players.”
The numbers were almost the least of it and they were sensational: 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals in 31 minutes filled with stretches you might have expected him to ease off the accelerator because he had the baggage of a foul too many.
His fingerprints – both bare and bloody – were all over this game, which carried some drama simply because the Lions are young, gifted and hungry, had been the last team to beat Gonzaga and presented matchup problems for the Zags that no other WCC team quite duplicated.
Then again, sometimes it’s forgotten the kind of matchup problem a player like Gray poses for Gonzaga’s opponents.
“I was talking with a pro scout about him last night,” said Max Good, the crusty LMU coach who looks like a senior version of the “Avatar” villain, Col. Quartich. “I said of all their guys, I’m not so sure he’s about as good a prospect (as they have). Probably got to tighten his handle up, but he’s an explosive athlete.”
There were scads of examples this night, all of them overshadowed by the frightening sequence midway through the first half when Gray bit on a pump fake by Drew Viney, catching his hip on the LMU player’s shoulder and flipping several feet in the air. He landed flush on his right side directly in front of Few, who was “certain he’d broken his elbow.” This was at the 9:45 mark, and as trainer Jennifer Nyland taped him up near the bench, Gray stood motionless with his arm hanging at his side – anything but the picture of hope.
At 8:01, he checked back into the game.
At 8:00, he took an inbounds pass from Bouldin and scored uncontested, the Lions apparently deked into thinking he was through, too.
There are different ways to illuminate how much Gray means to the Zags. One is to point out that in the five games they’ve lost, Gray has shot an aggregate 14 of 55 and scored less than 10 points a game. Naturally, he hasn’t been lights out in all the wins, either, but he was certainly a monster in Maui and came up big in the Oklahoma-Illinois parlay around New Year’s, as well as the first showdown with Saint Mary’s.
Few, not surprisingly, feels his junior guard has not fulfilled his destiny.
“I think it’s time for him to start stepping up and realizing (his potential),” Few said. “He’s always been so laid back. God gave him a gift. Steve’s had a really good year for us in how he’s defended and taken big shots when they’re there and made them, and big free throws. But there’s still some more we can get and he can get.”
He will get it all this weekend.
“There’s not many opportunities where you can say if we win these next two games, we’re champions,” Gray said. “That’s motivation enough to come out and play as hard as you can for the time you’re in, because there’s not that many left. And it’s really special.”
As goals go, it’s pretty black and white. Colored with shades of Gray.
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