It was a galoshes kind of day and a sneakers-in- a-snowdrift kind of night at Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center – not for basketball aesthetes, perhaps, but not to be thrown back, either.
In any event, the most interesting development relative to the Bulldogs’ 74-63 victory over San Francisco occurred 700-odd miles to the south:
Loyola Marymount 82, Brigham Young 68.
The Cougars of BYU are the West Coast Conference’s new kid in town, only considerably less hip and more threatening than Ren McCormack. Based on their pedigree, they were immediately ushered through the ropes to the VIP section with the 47-time defending champion Zags and their now perpetual nemeses, the Saint Mary’s Gaels.
And that was thought to be that – three teams standing on everyone else’s shoulders reaching for that NCAA tournament ring.
Until Thursday evening, when there a dissenting opinion with a little teeth was issued.
“Those other teams are plenty good enough to knock any of us off,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few insisted the other day, “and when they do, it shouldn’t be (considered) a bad loss.”
It was interesting to pick up on the general disdain out there in Zagistan last week when the locals picked themselves up from an awful drubbing by Saint Mary’s to eke out a riding-time win over Loyola. Apparently, the fact that the Lions have been feeding off the bottom ever since Bo Kimble shot a free throw left-handed has been interpreted to mean that they are incapable of surfacing, or being even the slightest bit menacing.
This is a notion that should go away, and now.
Along those same lines, that the Zags didn’t turn a surprising 20-point lead over USF into one of those old 40-point laughers but instead had to grit their teeth a little even to bring it home in double digits may have been a failing, but probably an irrelevant one.
Other than a nice demonstration by newcomer Guy Landry Edi that he does indeed have some game-changing possibilities, it didn’t seem as if any of the Bulldogs were really firing on this night.
And then a look at the game box shows that Elias Harris had 14 points and not a single turnover, and that struggling big man Robert Sacre took a step toward his old self with three dunks, and that point guard Kevin Pangos dealt with the many USF traps splendidly until a couple of late turnovers.
Fact is, the Zags played so well for an 11-minute span bridging the two halves that they kept it from being a fistfight – and didn’t put themselves in the same position BYU did against Loyola.
And despite what was seen in the Saint Mary’s debacle, there is still one thing that can separate Gonzaga from the other VIPs.
“They have high-major post play,” insisted USF coach Rex Walters.
“Rob Sacre is one of my favorite guys – because of his size, strength and skill within 10 feet, and his ability to shoot free throws, I think he’s a pro. I’m not smart enough to be an NBA guy, but I think at worst he could be a great third big because you know what you’re going to get from him.
“And I think Harris has taken a step up in his game. And they didn’t even play great tonight.”
Sometimes you don’t have to. But you’d better at least be ready to.
LMU and USF are teams every bit as veteran as the VIPs, teams that have had tastes of success – the Dons beating Gonzaga in San Francisco last year, for instance – and with an appetite for more.
“It’s not just that they’re better players now,” said Gonzaga guard Mike Hart, “they’re becoming better teams.”
And they sense opportunity. Walters himself noted that “even the top three – nobody’s been dominant on the road. It’s kind of been survive and advance.”
Nothing wrong with survival.
“You have to approach every game like it’s the most important or biggest one,” said Hart, “because one slip-up is going to affect your run toward the championship. That’s why we were so upset with ourselves after Saint Mary’s – we had an opportunity and we let it slide because weren’t ready to play. You can’t afford those kinds of games.”
A lesson learned Thursday by the WCC’s new kid in town.