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Blanchette: GU’s Pangos has worked way back

The scoreboard had been dark for nearly an hour and still he had yet to settle his load onto his locker stool, hear the hiss of a shower or take so much as a full breath.

Kevin Pangos was back, and everyone wanted to rub up against that rhythm.

Back from where? Where had he been?

Working at it. Same as always.

The minor amusement of the major, major entertainment Friday night at the McCarthey Athletic Center was how Gonzaga’s best victory of a basketball season nearly half over – a marvelous 94-87 sprint over the skillful, mercurial Baylor Bears – seemed all but overshadowed by the best single development.

Which would be Pangos being the Kevin Pangos everyone got used to a year ago.

He’s probably even better, you know. So is his Gonzaga backcourt partner, Gary Bell. The gains are subtle, incremental, not always something that will elicit a leap to the feet and a roar.

Gains easily dwarfed by a single backslide:

The shots haven’t been going in.

And then on this night, they did.

Pangos had one of those shooting nights for the ages – 10 of 13 overall, 7 of 10 on 3-pointers, the most he’s made since that coming-out party against Washington State 13 months ago, when he buried nine of them to subdue the Cougs and everyone mentally carved his profile next to the Stepps and Dickaus and Frahms, the faces on Gonzaga’s long-range Rushmore. Thirty-one points in all, and the Zags needed every bucket to stave off all of Baylor’s uncanny surges.

Seven times in the second half, the Zags stretched the lead to nine or more points, only to see the Bears whittle it back to a two-possession game. It was a good warmup for the Whiplash Classic that UCLA and Missouri played immediately after on ESPN2, and every bit as fun and skillful.

Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, quicker than the I-dos in a Vegas chapel, jitterbugging down the lane. Gonzaga’s Elias Harris flashing to tip in a missed free throw. Isaiah Austin, the Bears’ 7-foot-1 version of Austin Daye, running off a double screen for a 3-pointer. Kelly Olynyk calmly backing down Austin with the shot clock expiring for the settling basket.

But no one had more fun, or was more fun to watch, than Pangos, who in his last five games combined had managed just 44 points on woeful 30 percent shooting.

“I was never worried about him,” coach Mark Few insisted. “I just didn’t want him mentally trying to make it into something. Everyone starts talking about ‘sophomore slumps’ and all that crap. You don’t slump when you work at it as hard as that kid works. It’s not a slump. It’s a statistical anomaly that will eventually even out.”

Still, it was a disconcerting anomaly.

Before Baylor rolled into town, Pangos was averaging 9.9 points a game – fourth on the team – on 38 percent shooting, with one or no 3s in four of his last six games. A year ago at this time: 14.9 points (tops on the team), 46 percent shooting, nearly three 3s per game.

The flip side, of course, is that the Zags had been rolling nicely through a schedule of “name” (though not ranked) opponents with impressive (though not always skilled) athletes. Olynyk had given them yet another offensive option, and only in the loss to Illinois were Pangos’ diminishing numbers felt.

“You have to do other things,” he shrugged, “and that’s what I was trying to do when my shot wasn’t falling – get my bigs involved and run the team and make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

So, noteworthy during this “slump:” assists up, assists-to-turnover ratio up, steals up, minutes down from where they were a year ago. Heck, on Friday he even took a turn guarding the impossible Jackson and it coincided with three missed shots and a charge while the Zags turned a three-point deficit into a six-point lead late in the first half.

“My shot was falling today, my 3s, but I felt really good about some other things,” Pangos said, “coming off ball screens and making plays. They didn’t always work into assists, but sometimes it got us the advantage.

“That’s why I felt really good about the game. I made some different shots off the dribble. Am I going to show them every game? No. But it’s nice having them in my package and knowing I can go to them to get my own shot.”

So, anomaly over? Well, 30-point nights are anomalies, too.

“This team is so balanced,” Few said.

“It seems like people were wondering, ‘What’s wrong with Pangos?’ but, hey, he’s also playing with a lot of other good players. Sometimes it’s his night, sometimes it’s Sam (Dower), sometimes it’s ‘E.’ He’s all right with that. He doesn’t get hung up with that at all.”

But he does keep working at it.

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