LAS VEGAS – It’s been 15 years in the making, but finally someone took it all away from the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
All right, not all of it.
Not all the history – not the charmed rise from mom-and-pop store to national franchise, not the Bracketville thrills, not the Spokane mania, not the investment that got the gym built, not even entrée into this year’s NCAA tournament.
And not – forgive the odious term, please – the brand.
But for the first time in the decade and a half, the Zags have no championship banner to hang.
No regular-season title. And now no West Coast Conference tournament championship.
The Zags had won one or the other every year since 1997, but this time their rivals from Saint Mary’s – and, yes, the Gaels are rivals – took the best shot Gonzaga could summon and survived 78-74 in Monday’s furious and often spectacular final that kept a national audience riveted.
The inevitability of streaks coming to an end is absolute. The earth will not open and swallow the campus whole. But that doesn’t make it feel any less empty in the Zag universe.
“No question it hurts,” admitted center Rob Sacre. “It’s one of those things where you kind of want to go out with a bang. But this season’s not over yet.”
Not at all.
But even the anticipation of what’s next took a subtle hit. There is no crystal ball for what the NCAA committeemen might do, but any hopes the Zags might have had for a fifth seed and a place in the first-round games in Portland is now gone. Now, No. 5 seeds are hardly locks and Gonzaga’s track record proves it can win anywhere. But if this drops the Bulldogs to a dreaded 8-vs.-9 game, well, then that’s a shame.
This was a game of many delights and a few curiosities, not the least of which was the sad spectacle of Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos – so pure in a 30-point riddling of Brigham Young two nights before – making just three of 18 shots.
That and not getting fellow freshman Gary Bell – the league’s best 3-point shooter – but one attempt beyond the arc during the entire tournament, tilted the floor far too much in the extreme of the Zags’ bigs. They delivered – not the least when Elias Harris buried a nerve-snapping 3-pointer to force overtime – but Gonzaga could have used another dimension.
“They’re freshmen,” Sacre shrugged, “and you can’t rely always on freshmen – and that’s nothing against our guys. But I don’t want to put pressure on them. They battled. They just need to learn from this and get better.”
But no less important was how the Gaels manufactured advantages on the other end.
The Zags are married to switching all screens on defense, and it’s served them well. And even when the 7-foot Sacre wound up matched one-on-one against the Gaels’ irrepressible Matthew Dellavedova time and again down the stretch, it was no worse than a push.
Dellavedova was splendid – some of his runners were almost ridiculous, and even seven turnovers hardly detracted from his game. But he also missed his last four shots, with Sacre swatting two of them.
Where Gonzaga paid for the longest time was having small guards matched against the Gaels’ bigs, either for layups or offensive boards.
“They’re a great passing team,” said GU coach Mark Few, “and whatever help you give, they exploit it.”
The high-level play in this game and how it played nationally will do nothing to tone down the fervor of this series, even as Few continues to downplay and insist, as he has, “It seems like we have a lot of rivals.”
Sacre, of course, loves to stoke the fire, and even Monday night he maintained that “I don’t think we were even thinking about the championship – we just didn’t want those guys to win.”
But Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, who would seem to have the most to gain from the Gaels inching their way into Gonzaga’s neighborhood, shed another light.
“Yes, it’s a rivalry,” he said, “only because we’ve gotten good enough where we can beat them sometimes. That’s what makes it a rivalry.”
That, and the fact that they can get under one another’s skin.
“But I don’t think it’s anti-Gonzaga,” Bennett continued. “It’s more that we want to be champions, too. We pay the price. Why can’t it be us? But it takes time. I don’t think anyone’s done a better job of running a program the last 11 years than them. We’re chasing a pretty high bar, and we’ve been able to hang in. The last five years have been pretty close, and they have had the upper hand.
“So it’s nice to finally say, hey, for this year, we did have the upper hand. But next year will be next year, and I think both teams will be pretty good again.”
Great. Let’s book that, shall we?