LAS VEGAS – Start packing. Emotionally, that is.
The fun flirtation of this college basketball season was not the Big Dance, but the Big Tease – the knowledge that the NCAA had booked one of its opening-round tournament pods into Spokane this month and the giddy suspicion that the Gonzaga Bulldogs would be a part of it.
And by lingering in the mid-teens in the polls and knocking off just enough of the Top 50 teams – and even losing a couple of conference games to undervalued rivals, just for the drama of it – the Zags did their part to goose the imagining along.
Until Monday night, when they didn’t do much of anything.
If there was any small comic residue from the 81-62 cuffing the Saint Mary’s Gaels administered to the Zags in the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament, it was the traditional “storming of the floor” afterward by the triumphant fans – who numbered barely enough to black out the logo at center court. Of course, any gentle humor was probably lost on at least two-thirds of the 7,726 inside the Orleans Arena that were Gonzaga pledges.
They didn’t come here to watch their heroes lose – and certainly not to see them so thoroughly humbled.
And if they happened to hold tickets to the NCAA games in Spokane nine days hence, they will not be stoked by the irony that the Gaels and ubervillain Omar Samhan are now more likely to land there than the home team.
The Zags, yes, are a lock for the bracket. But their already slim chances of staying in Spokane?
That’s gone. A little something else, too.
The Gaels took away a smidgen of Gonzaga’s eminence. This is not the first WCC final the Bulldogs have lost since the inception of Zagmania, but it is the first they’ve lost on a neutral court and the first time they’ve been routed – and, really, the first significant ground they’ve given to Saint Mary’s. The Gaels have obviously been the WCC’s second-best program for seven years now, but a distant second – never winning the regular season or the tournament, and only hanging around on the fringes of the national legitimacy the Zags cherish.
Winning this one doesn’t make the Gaels an equal. But they’re not without cred now.
“I’ve always said when people ask if we’ve reached the same level, no, we haven’t,” said Gaels coach Randy Bennett. “We won’t until we beat them. We were able to go through the champ and that makes it a little more special.”
It was certainly startling how the circumstances were flipped so completely from the teams’ last meeting. Then, the Zags defended manically, turning the likes of Mickey McConnell and Ben Allen into les miserables; on this night, the Zags made them all-tournament. Gonzaga’s Elias Harris, the Gael gorer in the previous two games, was rendered a non-combatant. The Zags, as coach Mark Few noted, “lost our identity completely” on both ends of the floor.
“It’s something that festered as the game went on,” said guard Steven Gray. “We started to get frustrated and lose our heads with how the game was going. By the end of the game, we were completely dismantled as a group.”
And to make matters worse, it allowed the lightning rod Samhan a moment of redemption.
“I said in an interview that it was not only the biggest game of my career,” he said, “but it will define my career at Saint Mary’s.”
Turns out it will have multiple definitions. Before the winning was done, Samhan opened the proceedings by refusing to meet and greet GU’s Demitri Goodson at midcourt during the pre-game introductions, and later drew a technical giving Robert Sacre a shove at a timeout and then waving the Gonzaga big man to bring it on. Samhan had an unrequited case for being the WCC’s player of the year; on Monday, he was the tournament’s Most Valuable Jackass, hands down.
“That’s who he is, I guess,” shrugged Gray.
Thirty-two games into the season, the Zags are still looking to define themselves. Youthful doubts gave way to highfalutin expectations, the senstations of the sweep in Maui and improbable road conquests of Illinois and Memphis jaundiced by the stumbles at USF, Loyola Marymount and, yes, here – no matter how good the opponent.
After Sunday’s semifinal, Gray mused on Gonzaga’s mission here – and the pressure inherent in it.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how special what we’ve accomplished as a program is,” he said. “You see the guys around – Casey (Calvary), Cory (Violette), Blake (Stepp), Matt Santangelo – and they put so much of their time and effort into it and you don’t really want to let them down. You want to say you left it all out on the floor. That’s the staple of why this program is so successful. They get players to play as hard as they can and refuse to let themselves be outplayed.”
But refusal was withheld this night, and will have to be reclaimed somewhere else. Happy travels.
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