January 1, 2011 in Sports

Bulldogs show resolve, find their groove

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Resolu- tions don’t have to wait until New Year’s, but sometimes the calendar paints a guy into a corner.

So here goes:

Resist any inclination to write off the Gonzaga Bulldogs wholesale, no matter how sorry the stretch of losses, how obliterated the original expectations, how limited the prospects appear.

Resist, too, any urge to declare it all happily solved – even in the wake of the 73-52 pounding the Zags administered on New Year’s Eve to Oklahoma State, a familiar foil before but on this night a virtual speed bag.

“We’re still a team very much a team in growth mode,” cautioned coach Mark Few after Gonzaga’s fifth straight victory.

“Now we’re back. We’re playing for something now.”

At least they’re not playing for their post-season lives, as may have been the case two weeks ago.

ESPN has its gimmicked-up basketball packages – Feast Week, Bracket Busters, the Tip-Off Marathon. Gonzaga had Misery Month. Starting in mid-November, the Zags dropped five of seven games, four to ranked teams, in five different towns between Seattle and South Bend. The average spread was double digits, and even the ones that ended up close only got that way at the end.

This was the 12th-ranked team in the nation, according to the season’s first vote. Two talking heads said they’d be national champions.

So the Zags weren’t the only ones off their game. And now they seem to be back on it.

“We just got tired of losing games we were capable of winning.” said point guard Demetri Goodson.

So over the course of 13 days, the Zags have knocked off Baylor, Xavier and now Oklahoma State. If they are not true heavyweights this year in the mold of Gonzaga’s earlier conquerors – and maybe they are – they are all quality programs and were a collective 25-3 before meeting the Bulldogs.

Which is to say, whether these wins look as good in March – depending on how the three victims maneuver through their conference minefields – they are plenty good now, if only because of where the Zags were and what it took to right themselves.

Take the Cowboys. With an RPI of 37, they are now the jewel in Gonzaga’s resume, even though the most notable of their 11 wins was over the likes of Missouri State. But they have a few rugged customers inside and some solid guards – and yet the Zags carved them up and beat them down.

The Spokane experience was something less than jolly for OSU coach Travis Ford, who boiled over in the bowels of McCarthey after the game, hollering at the closed door of the referees’ dressing room that it was the “worst officiated game in the history of college basketball” and “a disgrace.”

He might have directed the latter remark at his own locker room door, too. His guys got mashed on the glass and made five of 14 free throws. Guard Keiton Page, a 16-points-a-game scorer, was invisible.

Ford was more gracious later, offering that the Zags “played a superb basketball game.

“They were the tougher basketball team tonight. I can see why they’ve won so many games in this building.”

Hmm. Haven’t they won a few elsewhere over the years, too?

The Zags have also survived similar rough patches before in their death-wish pre-conference regimen – the New Year’s swoons of 2007 and 2009 come to mind.

This time, the Zags have rallied around a dial-a-guy approach off the bench to supplement their Big Three of Robert Sacre, Elias Harris and Steven Gray. Manny Arop was the man of the night this time, with some help from David Stockton in first-half relief of Goodson.

“Trust me, I didn’t mind when it was Santangelo, Frahm, Nilson, Dench, Calvary and Floyd as constants,” said Few, harkening back to the cast of the first of his 300 career wins. “It was easier. But every year is different and every group is different.”

And then there’s been defense.

In the last five games, all five opponents have been held to under 37 percent shooting from the field. After surrendering an average of nine 3-pointers a game through nine starts, the Zags have given up just 27 during the win streak.

“To win games, you have to get stops,” said Harris. “Offensively in those earlier games, we played OK, but defensively we could not keep guys in front of us and gave up too many 3s.”

But as much as anything, the Zags didn’t surrender to depression in quite the same manner as their invested public – or as Few acknowledged, “as much as the coaches feared.”

“People may have thought we were down on ourselves,” Goodson said, “but we stayed confident. We knew the schedule we’d played.”

Sometimes it’s not about resolution, but simply resolve.

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