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Blanchette: Not surprisingly, Zags find way to win

LAS VEGAS – Among all the streaks, chokeholds and assorted algebraic proof of Gonzaga’s sway over the West Coast Conference lo these many years comes more:

The last time the Bulldogs got bounced in the league tournament semis as a 1 or 2 seed was back in 1994. In the 16 seasons between then and this weekend came 15 championship game appearances, and 13 in a row.

Saddle up for No. 14.

So why should we be surprised?

Why should we be surprised that the Zags – who went the final seven minutes of Sunday’s semifinal against San Francisco without a field goal, and with everyone but trainer Jennifer Nyland burdened with four fouls – still scraped their way into tonight’s title game, thanks to the clutchage of a player who could barely get on the floor in January and who they can’t afford to not have out there now?

Isn’t this where Gonzaga is always expected to be?

“We made our goals,” said center Rob Sacre, “and we’re slowly seeing them accomplished.”

The operative word, of course, being “slowly.” There were the nonconference travails in December and the WCC stumble in January, the free-fall out of the Top 25 and the dial-a-prayer rotation that staggered along not out of whim but necessity.

As usual, everyone outside the Zags’ inner circle figured their heroes would be grandfathered into greatness.

But not until Marquise Carter nailed seven free throws in the final 43 seconds that the Zags subdued USF 71-67 and earned the championship game rematch – and rubber game – against Saint Mary’s.

Although they still might be playing the semis if the Stoogesque stylings of referees J.T. Orr, Michael Irving and Mike Reed hadn’t succumbed to the clock. Is new officials maestro Dave Libbey paying by the whistle?

The Zags owe their survival to the usual preposterous confluence of events. There was the 10-0 run in the first half that gave them margin for error, perpetuated almost exclusively by reserve David Stockton, as always the least fearsome looking player on the floor. There was the manic managing of the lineup with both Stockton and fellow point guard Demetri Goodson stuck with four fouls. And then there was, yes, defense, remarkable in the last 90 seconds.

Sacre taking a nervy charge. Mike Hart – “the best five-minute player in America” as anointed by assistant coach Donny Daniels – poking the ball away on the baseline. Carter stripping USF’s Cody Doolin, and Goodson leaping high to intercept the Dons’ last inbounds pass – and their last chance.

And then, of course, the free throws by the once enigmatic Carter.

“Stepping to the line seemed really relaxing and easy for me,” he claimed.

“But he still loses to me in free-throw games,” Sacre needled.

“Really?” coach Mark Few said. “Must be verbal harassment.”

The biggest endorsement for these Zags – in a year when there has been more darts and denigration – is not since the early years of this streak have they had to play each successive game with so much on the line.

We’re talking about the NCAA tournament bid, of course. We have to, because the Zags insist they haven’t been.

“Nothing was going to be given to us all year, so we just keep our heads down, focused and grinding away,” Sacre said. “We’re not focused on getting a bid. We’re focused on winning and that’s all that matters.”

Really? Even with their chances having been roundly dismissed almost two months ago?

“I don’t think they even look at that stuff,” Few said. “I think 45-year-old men do – unless they’re computer illiterate like me. They’re into their iPods and music. They don’t surf the Internet for Joe Lunardi, I can tell you that.”

There is still considerable debate whether the Zags – or Saint Mary’s, for that matter – can rest easy if they lose tonight. WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich spoke confidently enough earlier in the evening, but he also invoked the teams’ status as “national brands,” which suggests he doesn’t really understand the process.

He’ll learn more next year when he joins the selection committee.

It’s been a while since the Zags had to sweat one out like this – but it doesn’t seem all that different to Few.

“You go back and we’ve had close games down here where we fought and fought and fought in the semis,” he said, “or came down here before when we had to get a win or two.

“Yeah, it’s different, but it’s not out of the realm. We’re 23-9 with four or five pretty good out-of-conference wins – those teams are pretty solid. And we won our conference championship. And we’re playing in the title game for the I-don’t-know how-manyth time.”

Fourteen. Fourteen in a row.

“Seems like a pretty normal year,” he said.

Yeah. But crazy normal.

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