LAS VEGAS – The Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrated Monday night in a way they haven’t in at least a decade.
They celebrated like it mattered, because it did.
One more time, they turned back the challenge of Saint Mary’s, the Frazier to Gonzaga’s Ali here in the West Coast Conference, 75-63 in the championship game of the league tournament – and the NCAA tournament pass that came with it, extending that residency to 13 consecutive years, was by no means incidental.
But, really, this was about something else.
“It was real,” Steven Gray said. “It was … over.”
Not the season, not by any means. But the climb.
“To go day by day and have people questioning this team, doubting what we can do and writing us off,” he continued, “to be with those 13, 14, 15 guys every day, having the same goal and to fight – truly fight – for something we really wanted, to see it all coming to a end and reaching that goal was such a great feeling.
“It’s one of the true, human moments you can have.”
Oh, these Zags are human, all right. It’s their finest quality.
They are flawed, they are feisty and sometimes their game is ugly, with or without the alliterative prefix. But at the moment, they are everything their predecessors have been, and worthy of the same respect.
“I haven’t been more proud of a group of guys,” said Bulldogs coach Mark Few. “From where we were to where we are now has been an incredible journey, and it’s taught me a lot about the resiliency of kids.
“They deserve all the credit. They didn’t deal with all the noise. They just played and got better.”
And no one symbolized this remarkable level of will and resiliency more than guard Marquise Carter.
Your tournament MVP. Who scored not a single point in the second half of the championship game.
And yet no one could possibly have deserved the accolade more. On top of the 18 points he scored to carry the Zags through an even more rugged semifinal test against San Francisco, he had 11 in the first half against Saint Mary’s – including two improbable runners in the final 45 seconds that required some physics-defying beanbagging of the ball on the rim before they fell through. Those buckets suggested that the Gaels, who seem to have no ceiling on their many circus shots, may have found an equal in that – with more weapons behind it.
But even well before the tournament, it was Carter’s development – and that of backups Sam Dower and David Stockton – that crystallized the notion that there was more to this team than what had been seen over the season’s first couple of months.
And Few even acknowledged that he wondered, at one point, if anyone was ever going to see it.
“I wasn’t sure he was going to come back after Christmas,” he said.
Junior college All-Americans who show up at a big-time school and find themselves well down the pine often find it motivation to leave. Even after Christmas, Carter struggled through a January during which he played just 74 minutes – or fewer than he played the last two days alone.
“We just had to get him out of second gear,” Few said, “and to his credit, he did. Now he’s doing everything – making plays on the defensive end, coming off ball screens assertively. It just takes JC guys time to adapt to this level.
“It’s a little bit like what J.P. Batista went through. He had so much trouble finishing plays, but after Christmas that first year, it kicked in.”
When Carter’s offense went quiet, the Zags spread things around – the biggest baskets being a nervy 3-pointer by Stockton, a gargantuan tip-in by Elias Harris and a building-shaking dunk by Robert Sacre.
Indeed this was an ensemble turn like few the Bulldogs have produced this year, players 1 through 9 – and it was especially so on defense, where they held Saint Mary’s to one field goal in the last nine minutes.
But between the time the Gaels took control of the WCC race to Monday, Gonzaga had gained an edge their rivals had lost. The Zags had found new parts, new ways, new heart.
That was their MVP.
“I wouldn’t say I was actually thinking about not coming back,” Carter said, apprised of Few’s remarks. “But when people aren’t getting what they want, it goes through your mind, ‘What can I do to make it different?’
“But that’s when players get better – when things aren’t going their way. It takes a strong, confident person to want to get better to show people what you can do. I knew I was able to play with these guys. It was just a matter of time. And I’m just so glad we’re here.”
Sharing a true, human moment – in a chain of them that goes back 13 years.
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