January 28, 2011 in Sports

Gaels force reality on GU

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Who needs The Jimmer?

OK, both of these teams do. As far as being the cruiser- weight darlings of college basketball, the torch has passed from Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s to San Diego State and Brigham Young, which staged their Top 10 battle 24 hours before the unranked Zags and partially ranked Gaels got around to it Thursday night. And after BYU’s Jimmer Fredette hung 43 on the Aztecs from all conceivable angles and area codes, everything else non-BCS-conference basketball is pretty much an afterthought.

On the other hand, the Gaels have Mickey McConnell. Call him a poor man’s Jimmer.

And the Zags?

Well, if it’s not time for panic, it is possibly time for resignation.

After the Bulldogs were swept in the Bay Area last weekend, it seemed reasonable to speculate that Gonzaga’s run of NCAA tournaments is over unless the Zags win the WCC tournament, and the automatic bid that goes with it.

If that wasn’t the case before, it almost certainly is now.

Gonzaga’s 73-71 loss to the Gaels was their third in a row to a West Coast Conference team, something that hasn’t happened in 14 years. It’s also only the second time the Zags have lost a conference game in the McCarthey Athletic Center.

Some history you don’t court.

So there are the Gaels, undefeated atop the conference – winners here for the first time since 1995. And there are the Zags, in fourth place with three losses, the WCC season one game from its midpoint.

“Yeah, normally it’s not like that,” acknowledged McConnell. “But that’s a testament to our league this year. They lost to two very good teams in USF and Santa Clara – anyone can go to those two places and lose.

“So I’m surprised, but I’m really not surprised.”

Same could be said of the shot McConnell made to win it with 1.2 seconds left on the clock – a gymnastic 15-foot leaner over Robert Sacre, who the Gaels point guard spotted 12 full inches. He probably shouldn’t have been able to convert such a well-defended shot – never mind that he said the Gaels were hoping for the defensive switch off the screen that left him against Sacre.

But McConnell had made every manner of shot during the course of the game – pretty floaters, crafty runners, cold-blooded 3s out to 28 feet. So why not this one for the last of his 27 points?

“He had zero here last year,” deadpanned Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. “Little bit of an improvement.”

The Gaels lost that one by 19. While this game was a vast improvement in terms of drama, tension, big shots and unlikely heroes – whether it be former deep-pine guy Sam Dower carrying Gonzaga back from a second-half deficit or Gaels clunk Phil Benson gallantly warring with Sacre in the post – neither of these teams is what they’ve been.

The Gaels have no post-up game. At times, it seems that’s all Gonzaga has.

Steven Gray, after a mostly nondescript first 30 minutes, finally gave Saint Mary’s something to think about with some drives to the hoop. He picked up his fourth foul with eight minutes to play but stayed on the floor – which looked like a gamble that could pay off until he was whistled for a tough charge three minutes later.

“When one of your best players has four fouls, you have to have a lot of trust with him,” McConnell said.

Bennett’s trust is undeniably with McConnell, who might as well be issued the WCC Player of the Year Award now.

“He’s a tough matchup,” Bennett said. “He’s really improved each year, and a lot from last year to this year. He can hit those floaters and tough shots and he’s such a threat from three. He gets guys in foul trouble. What did he end up with?”

Twenty-seven, Bennett was told.

“Then it’s a ridiculous game,” he said.

If there’s a difference between these two teams, it’s that. It’s been a while since the Zags had a ridiculous game from anyone, even their redoubtable big three.

And a longer while since they’ve had to look from such an obscured vantage point in the WCC.

“I’m not used to it either,” coach Mark Few said. “But you just have to keep doing the same things you’ve always done. If anything, it should give people pause to see how special it has been.”

That’s not white flag, if you were wondering.

“We build them back up and get ready to compete again,” he said. “Everything they want to accomplish is still in front of them.”

Pretty far out in front, though.

“This is a good (Gonzaga) team,” Bennett insisted. “People keep talking about this and that, but it’s a good team. They’ve lost a couple of close games. If not for that, they’d be in great shape.”

But they’re not. Not great at all.


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