Game long over, a Gonzaga operative pushed a wheelchair through a ground-level corridor at the McCarthey Athletic Center and toward the court, where he encountered Randy Bennett – more resigned than cranky – walking off.
“I hope that isn’t for me,” the Saint Mary’s coach cracked.
Hey, there were stretches Thursday night in which medical conveyances seemed like a prudent precaution.
In an atmosphere as electric as it’s been in The Kennel in a good, long spell, the best the West Coast can currently offer up to ESPN for its rivalry week – OK, maybe the second-best – played high-level chicken for the better part of 30 minutes. This time it was the Gaels who blinked – or perhaps balked.
The 73-59 loss that ended their 12-game winning streak won’t knock them out of the Top 25 and didn’t knock them out of first place in the West Coast Conference. Which means Gonzaga still needs some help if they want to avoid something they haven’t experienced in a dozen years.
It sounds so much like, well, slumming.
But if the victory didn’t send the Zags back to the top of the mountain, it surely restored some of the dignity that had been siphoned away in ugly road losses to the Gaels and Brigham Young – a mission accomplished the only way possible.
“I told them before the game,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, “that everybody in this building needs to know who the toughest team is.”
Yes, the separation the Zags got on Saint Mary’s doesn’t occur if Kevin Pangos isn’t winging in 3-pointers as he did way back in November against Washington State, and especially if he doesn’t find running mate Gary Bell for an end-of-clock killer that set off a roar which bowed The Kennel’s walls.
That’s when the Gaels took a standing eight-count, and they were never in the fight thereafter.
But the Gaels are certainly good enough to withstand a few 3s. Unless you don’t let them be that good.
And the Zags didn’t.
After appearing thoroughly unengaged in an 83-62 blowout in Moraga a month ago, the Bulldogs’ bigs were very much a force this night – GU outrebounding the visitors 40-26, a 17-board swing. Elias Harris had a double-double; Robert Sacre just missed. But numbers were almost the least of it.
“Rob was a force just with his entity,” Few said. “Even when we weren’t getting him the ball, he was posting so hard that it led to a lot of drive lay-ins and easy opportunities for the other guys.”
But maybe even more telling on the toughness scale was Gonzaga’s defense.
With the score tied at 45 six minutes into the second half, the Bulldogs turned over the ball four of their next five trips down the floor – virtually inviting a game-changing run. Instead, the Gaels missed six straight shots and turned it over twice themselves. In the end, they shot just 38 percent – their worst production of the season.
The Zags changed their approach this time – opening with forward Guy Landry Edi for a bigger body on the Gaels’ remarkable point guard, Matthew Dellavedova, and sliding Bell over to chase sophomore Stephen Holt, who has come on since Christmas to have an All-WCC season.
Dellavedova still got his points, but his passes didn’t do nearly as much damage.
“I wanted to take the challenge – I came to Coach and asked if I could guard him,” Edi said. “I just wanted to make sure he didn’t get anything easy. It didn’t matter if I fouled out – he wasn’t going to get anything easy.”
But Holt got nothing, in 31 minutes. And outside of a couple of buckets by Jorden Page, the Gaels’ offense never got out of neutral the entire second half.
Toughness can be measured inside and out – and this night, the Zags had the better backcourt, as well.
“This is the Gonzaga you should see every night,” Edi said. “The first game against them, we didn’t play – it wasn’t us out there.”
The Gaels can possibly make the same argument about this one – and Bennett allowed that if several of his players went AWOL, “some of that was Gonzaga and some of it was us.”
In any case, pretty much everyone left The Kennel with this thought: Can we fast forward to the rubber game right now?
Yes, the Zags still have critical games against BYU and Loyola Marymount – that one Saturday night, and especially dangerous after an emotional victory like this.
But, apologies elsewhere, these are the teams you want to see the first Monday in March in Las Vegas.
Well, the teams most people want to see. Maybe not Bennett, who as he took questions kept his eye on two youngsters shooting at the other end of the court.
“I’m sizing up Few’s kid down there,” he said. “Make sure he’s not another Pangos.”