Blanchette: Gonzaga came out ready, steady against BYU
LAS VEGAS – Here in Multiple- Bid Land, life is always good.
The question then becomes, inevitably, is it too good?
The rather considerable sigh that Gonzaga coach Mark Few let out at the end of the regular season was parsed, sliced and diced in that respect all week approaching the West Coast Conference basketball tournament.
“It’s just nice,” he said, “to be able to go into that tournament knowing you’re not sweating it.”
Holy red flags.
There was no mistaking his reference – sweating NCAA tournament selection – and there was no slowing all the third-hand emotional temperature taking triggered by that single sentence.
With their bracket invitation assured, would the Zags be ready? Would they come with an edge?
Would they care enough?
Asked. Answered. Hammered home.
Turns out they cared so much, they might have undercut one of those bids.
The 77-58 blasting of Brigham Young that sent the Bulldogs into Monday’s WCC title game for a ridiculous 15th consecutive year was yet another tribute to the approach and will the program’s principals bring to this cozy affair, whether they’re playing for their NCAA lives or whether it’s essentially a tuneup with a trophy at stake.
And it was a hard lesson and ignominious exit for the BYU loyalists who believed the Cougars’ entry into parochial league was a dreary comedown from their old perch in the Mountain West Conference.
Well, turns out it was a comedown. Just not the sort imagined.
And for the Zags? You could call it business as usual, except there is little usual about it.
“Fifteen? Is it that many?” wondered Few, asked for his thoughts on that championship-game run. “I can’t believe it.
“It’s a great testament to the guys we’ve had because in this tournament, everybody brings it.”
Including the Zags, even when it’s somewhat hazy whether they’re in that mode.
Their last week of the regular season, the three victories – including one over BYU – notwithstanding, did not appear representative of a team cresting. Their sense of the moment seemed thoroughly unpredictable this season – the road pratfalls at Saint Mary’s and BYU, the loss at USF after the league-leading Gaels had given them an opening to share in another regular-season title, their ugly stretches of turnovers forced and unforced.
And especially their habit of letting teams back into games thought to be under control.
Stunningly, against a team that both Few and BYU coach Dave Rose were adamant about belonging in the NCAA bracket, that was never an issue.
It was one thing for Gonzaga to come charging out of the gate – and the 19-5 lead the Zags stormed to in the beginning was quite possibly 6 minutes of the purest basketball you’ll ever see. Flawless man-to-man defense. Pretty 3-pointers from the remarkable Kevin Pangos. And the culminating play – a BYU pass Guy Landry Edi deflected to Pangos, who quickly redirected it to a streaking Edi for a vicious dunk.
But the biggest cause of amazement: The Cougars never got the gap to single digits the rest of the way.
“We stayed aggressive all night,” Few acknowledged. “Sometimes we shoot a lot of 3s and there can be swings in momentum. We play fast, and that does it, also.
“But tonight the defense was the constant – it was consistent all night and that’s going to minimize a team’s runs.”
Lot of heroes on that end – Edi, Gary Bell Jr. on BYU wild card Matt Carlino, Elias Harris grinding with one-time Zag killer Noah Hartsock.
No one was completely shut down, but baskets came hard.
It’s something the Cougars couldn’t accomplish with Pangos, who from his early-season outburst against Washington State to a 30-point performance here has become the big-splash kid.
“I don’t go into games thinking, ‘This game I’m going to hunt my shot’ or that I’m not,” he said. “I just read the defense and see what they give. I was feeling it a little bit tonight and let it fly, and that was the best thing for the team this game.”
So the Zags are back for a fourth straight title-game dance with Saint Mary’s – which, like GU, has punched its NCAA ticket. Confident as Rose might be, however, the Cougars have a lot of championship-week sweating it out to do, and it’s hard to like their odds after getting worked like this.
Oh, and that pressure on the Zags to keep the title-game streak going? That deserves some perspective, too.
“I was feeling more under the gun because the wave pool at the Mandalay Bay opens Monday,” Few reported. “So I was really getting heat from my kids to get it done tonight.”
His own kids, he meant – not his players.
Lest anyone care to fret over their readiness come Monday night.