SEATTLE – No one was writing anyone off, not with a week of Christmas shopping still remaining, but the Gonzaga Bulldogs had reached a point – as they seem to almost every season now – where they’d been caught in the switches.
Losses they needed to be victories, awkward showings against undervalued opponents, still no volunteers for that go-to bucket.
Saturday was time for the Zags to go uptown.
So they took the E Train.
The “E” in Elias Harris has suggested, at various times, both enticing and enigmatic during his stay at Gonzaga. In a 71-60 not-quite-stomping of Arizona in the Battle in Seattle at KeyArena, it stood simply for electric.
As in power. As in high voltage. Though there was something downright nuclear in it, too.
“He had something going,” agreed teammate Mike Hart, “and there wasn’t anyone out there capable of stopping him today.”
Not even Elias Harris, which apparently can sometimes be the problem.
In a 25-point, eight-rebound performance, the 6-foot-7 junior reclaimed the promise from his fine freshman year and made even more baffling his mostly up-and-down game since – not that anyone plans to linger on that. Especially not Harris himself.
“Sometimes I’m overcritical,” he said, “and that’s not always the best trait to have. One thing I need to change: think less, and just go to work.”
Work was certainly done Saturday.
There would be no chiding for not “delivering” as was the case a week ago in a home loss to Michigan State. Harris opened the game with a pretty 3-pointer that launched a 14-0 Gonzaga start and drilled another that sent the Zags into halftime up 39-21. Between and after came an assortment of unstoppable post moves and relentlessness on the glass that stamped this as his best game since the 31-point, 13-rebound ravaging of Saint Mary’s his freshman year.
Best of all, he apparently saw it coming.
“In warm-ups, he told Stocks (guard David Stockton), ‘I’m hot,’” reported teammate Gary Bell. “Then he hit that first three and he was on a roll.”
It was all energy and aggression. Posting up 12 feet from the basket and simply overpowering his defender for a bucket to open the second half. Making an eye-blink spin to work free on the baseline and taking a pass from Sam Dower for an easy lay-up. Anticipating a perimeter pass and making a steal that turned into a thunderous dunk – despite Arizona’s Kyle Fogg trying, and failing, to reach out and grab his jersey for an intentional foul to stop it.
“I don’t know if there’s a better forward out there,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “He’s striking with how tall he is. I didn’t know he was as big physically as he is.
“A guy that big a lot of times plays the 5. He’s fortunate, and Gonzaga is, that they have (Robert) Sacre with him, which gives them a great advantage, and then off the bench Dower is really good.”
The Wildcats are not the most imposing group inside. Starters Jesse Perry and Solomon Hill go just 6-7 and 6-6; their relief is bigger, but gets less done.
Gonzaga assistant coach Ray Giacoletti pointed out that the Wildcats also switch on ball screens with everyone but the 5 man, “so we were going to try to use the mismatch a couple of different ways, to find him and get him the basketball. But he was aggressive – he’d get two feet in the paint and go to work.”
But he was just as impactful on the other end. Hill loves to catch the ball away from the basket and drive, but he was mostly frustrated, making just 1 of 7 shots.
“I got it going on the defensive end,” Harris said, “and all of a sudden everything comes easy at the offensive end.”
It’s not that the Zags always need a dominant presence to get their work done but, damn, it certainly makes life easier. Especially to keep the energy level up – two more substantial opponents await in the next five days, Butler and Air Force.
“Gonzaga just keeps going – their talent, their discipline, their intelligence,” Miller shrugged. “The one thing this team today really established in my mind is how physical they are. If this was a football game, they would have 180, 200 yards running – five yards on every carry.”
And yet this is only the second game this season Harris has led the team in scoring – and his season average before Saturday was third behind Sacre and Kevin Pangos. Have the Zags finally discovered how to get the most out of their, well, feature back?
“I don’t know,” said coach Mark Few. “He’s a kid who’s a pleaser and wants to do things the right way, and has a tendency to sometimes overanalyze things because he wants to be perfect.”
A pleaser. Elias Harris was every bit that Saturday.