DENVER – Maybe these Gonzaga Bulldogs aren’t so much different from their basketball forebears.
Or maybe they’re completely different. Whatever.
Surely there was something eerily familiar in the mere fact of the Zags carving up 18th-ranked St. John’s 86-71 on Thursday night in the NCAA tournament, the final home run in what was nearly a topsy-turvy grand slam at the Pepsi Center.
Three double-digit seeds won here in this second-round pod – No. 13 Morehead State, No. 12 Richmond and finally the No. 11 Zags, though it might be suggested that whoever did the math on the last one needs to rotate the beads on their abacus.
“We certainly didn’t consider ourselves an underdog,” offered Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
Or play like one.
There’s a distinction. The thread that generally runs through the madness of March upsets features the scrappy overachiever, knocking down improbable shots, maybe a buzzer-beating 3, keeping it close before nudging ajar the door of bracket immortality.
In this one, the Zags led by double figures for 29 of the 40 minutes, including the final 19. They crushed the third-place team from the vaunted Big East Conference by 23 on the glass. Not until 32 minutes had gone by did their shooting dip under 60 percent. They cracked the St. John’s zone, they handled the pressure, they kept the Red Storm’s ace, Dwight Hardy, from changing the game.
Victory? This was vivisection.
“I’m sure they didn’t think it could happen like that,” said Zags forward Elias Harris.
Now the Zags face the only higher-seeded survivor in Denver, Brigham Young, and the relentless gunning of Jimmer Fredette. And, yes, this time they’ll probably be legitimate underdogs, with a few caveats.
And so parallels could undoubtedly be drawn with the teams that first rewrote the storyline of Gonzaga basketball more than a decade ago. They were 10 seeds and 12s, knocking off Stanfords and Floridas and Louisvilles and, yes, St. John’s – playing with self-assurance if not always the raw dominance on display this night.
“I think we’re like the first Gonzaga team that went to the tournament,” said center Rob Sacre. “I think we believe like they did. I think we’re relentless.”
This was yet another hint of how far this particular team has come from some of the gloomier hours of December and January, though Sacre has grown tired of those references.
“For all the haters out there, it feels great to shove it down their throats,” he said. “I’m just sick, personally, and I think the guys are sick of people doubting us. Yeah, we went through a rough spot and people didn’t think we’d even make it out of the league.
“But we’re a good team, and you shouldn’t doubt us.”
As with any victory, this one took shape in the practice lab – maybe more than any of the 24 that preceded it this season.
“We worked as hard as we’ve ever worked with a three-day prep,” said Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd.
“Usually when you’re breaking down a scout, it’s 75 percent their offense and 25 percent yours. We flipped that. Theirs is a different zone to play against, the areas you want to attack, and our guys did an outstanding job of attack those areas and not settling for the 3. And the 3s we did get were open, toed-up. Really, you can’t run plays against it – it’s a concept deal. So we gave them a few concepts and hammered them home.”
The key was Sacre, constantly getting a body on the Red Storm’s smaller post players, bumping rotators, opening up driving lanes and gaps in the corners for guards Steven Gray, Demetri Goodson and especially Marquise Carter.
Gray responded with his best shooting night in several weeks. Goodson – who ran the point for 33 minutes – attacked the pressure and found the right hands. And Carter was simply the most dialed-in Zag – 24 points, six rebounds, six assists.
“We were taking shots,” said Gray, “on our terms.”
And going and getting the ones that didn’t go in. Never have the Zags had this great of a rebound margin in an NCAA tournament game.
Which is one reason Lloyd suggested maybe this wasn’t so reminiscent of the early-run Zags.
“This is the new Gonzaga,” he sasid. “We’re big, strong, physical, athletic. I don’t know if people really understand that.
“Night in and night out, nobody is stronger out there than Rob. Or as athletic and strong as E. Kelly (Olynyk) and Sam (Dower) are maybe as good as any posts in the country coming off the bench.
“Maybe it’s a new era. We didn’t beat them by just shooting 3s. We beat them up. When has anybody said that about Gonzaga.”
They said it Thursday night, while everyone watched something old that was completely different.