Gonzaga’s student take-the-hate- out-of-hoops movement to curb any potential faith-baiting of the guests from Brigham Young on Thursday night was all fine and noble.
Somebody needed to put some hoops in the hoops, however.
Now, they went hard and then they went hard some more – and they certainly went long – to settle which of them has to play on Friday in next week’s West Coast Conference tournament.
But, man, did March basketball seem far away sometimes.
Still, Gonzaga’s 74-63 handling of the Cougars kept the Bulldogs’ hopes of a 12th straight regular-season championship flickering, and if that feels like strained comfort to the constituency they’ve spoiled over that time, it really shouldn’t.
“You can’t on one hand say it’s the best the league has ever been,” allowed Gonzaga coach Mark Few, “and then think you’re going to have a picnic getting through it.”
If this was a picnic, the ants wore armor and carried off the watermelon whole.
It was surely less genteel on the floor than it was in the occasionally over-the-line Kennel Club, and the no-hate activists must have been beaming – unless chanting “You’re not Jimmer!” at BYU gunner Matt Carlino can be deemed hateful.
Hey, just being in the same heckle probably ranks as a compliment.
If neither of these teams looked to be showcasing themselves for NCAA seeding or bracket auditions, well, it’s that kind of year in college basketball. The bubble carries so little cachet that it will be something of a crime if a few more teams from the traditional middle class don’t make it.
Flaws are in. The Zags and Cougs revealed many.
BYU got off more shots than any Gonzaga opponent this season – and made a worse percentage than everyone except a couple of WCC bottom feeders. Some of those were well defended and others not so much. Carlino was an un-Jimmerish 7 of 23 but never stopped firing. Only three Cougars scored in the first half, and the inability of noted Zag-killer Noah Hartsock to go on a balky left knee was an obvious subtraction.
“We’re better with him in there, it’s apparent,” said his frontcourt mate, Brandon Davies.
Yet even without him, the Cougars knocked the Zags silly on the boards – except junior forward Elias Harris, who collected 16 and pretty much single-handedly held the fort.
“Plus he finished plays and made some big baskets when we really needed them,” Few said.
Gonzaga was on the verge of tipping the visitors over in the same fashion the Zags took it earlier this month in Provo, Utah, until a recurring fatalism set in – the penchant of bunching turnovers.
Up by 17 points with just 13 to play, the Bulldogs kicked it away four straight times down the floor and managed to go nearly 8 minutes without a field goal.
“Sometimes you get stuck in that quandary,” Few said, “when you’ve got a decent lead and you can’t shoot quick and want to run clock – but you also want to stay attacking. They saw that and amped up the pressure and started getting after us a little more.
“Then we had a tiger by the tail.”
It took until the closing minutes for the Zags to “figure out we needed to spread them out and drive them and get to the line if they were going to be that aggressive,” Few said. And get to the line they did, shooting 44 free throws.
Certainly it’s nice to survive a 20-turnover night. But freshman year’s close to over for guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., and it’s time to take care of the basketball. Goes for the upperclassmen, too.
There were other ways it didn’t feel like playoff basketball – or at least Zag basketball.
In a game as serious as a migraine, the normally by-the-book Bell tried to inject some fun with the Zags edging toward blowout.
An acrobatic steal and pass from Guy Landry Edi had the freshman all alone heading for a layup or a dunk – until he tossed the ball off the glass for Edi to slam instead. A foul broke up the highlight – and brought Few off the bench.
“That’ll probably be on the not Top 10,” Bell said.
“I turned around and it looked like Guy was open and he was yelling, ‘Off the glass, off the glass.’ I didn’t know a foul was called. I just saw the ball go and then I heard the whistle and was like, ‘Whew.’”
At least until he heard from his coach.
“It was handled,” Few said. “I’ll bet he’ll never do it again. I think he felt bad about it. He just got excited.”
Too much at stake for that. In a league Gonzaga has won by as many as six games before, four teams have double-digit victories this year.
“It’s not,” Few sighed, “like the old days.”