PITTSBURGH – In the walk-in closet at Consol Energy Center where the Gonzaga Bulldogs changed clothes Saturday, Robert Sacre sent off one wave of inquisitors and greeted the next.
“Here come the newspaper guys,” he said, the fear in his voice reaching new heights of faux, “with the real hard questions – for people who read.”
At just about that moment, teammate David Stockton diverted Sacre’s attention with small stuffed monkey held near his left ear, a leftover from a prank on freshman Gary Bell Jr.
“We took this and put in the corner of Gary’s room,” Sacre explained. “He thought it was a rat. Scared him.”
And this, folks, was the losing locker room.
But there is losing and there is losing, a concept the Zags had been forced to swallow in their two previous NCAA basketball tournament exits – painful drubbings at the hands of Syracuse and Brigham Young that exposed shortcomings and mimicked the finish of a $5 Merlot.
Saturday? Not so much.
Yes, the Bulldogs fell again in the NCAA’s round of 32, but the 73-66 loss to second-seeded Ohio State was as splendid a game the tournament has seen outside of a 15th-seed shocking the world and exposed little other than some character, want-to and Gonzaga at its likeable best.
“It’s not as tough,” acknowledged coach Mark Few, “when you play good.”
At the heart of it was a surge from 10 points down fueled by a well-conceived zone defense and the captivating Bell, and finished by a steely 3-pointer from the right corner by Elias Harris – making it a new ballgame with 4 minutes to go.
The rest you know: mere heartbreak. Another Harris 3 just rimmed out. Two tough shots by Kevin Pangos failed to connect. And the killer – a pretty feed from David Stockton to an open Pangos in that fateful corner with 85 ticks on the clock that seemed to kiss the inside of the net twice before popcorning out.
“I swore it was in,” said Few. “I looked at the official and said, ‘How did that not go in?’ ”
This is what separated the teams Saturday – the Buckeyes made a couple of more shots, or rather denied the Zags a couple. Aaron Craft’s defense on Pangos was nothing short of suffocating, and his 17 points made Gonzaga pay for diverting its attentions elsewhere.
A deeper run in the tournament, simply, was dependent on the scoring dimension Pangos provides. Against the best competition, the Zags weren’t likely to survive his 3 of 13.
And yet there wasn’t the heaviness lingering in the Bulldogs’ postgame evident in recent years – which shouldn’t be confused with an indifference to playing on.
“I hope everybody understands, you’re playing 2 seeds, 1 seeds, 3 seeds,” Few said. “(Ohio State) was a 2 that a week ago until 30 seconds left in the Big Ten championship was a 1.
“I felt much better about the way we played and handled it.”
But that was a season-long feeling – a circumstance that comes with some irony.
This was, after all, the first year in a dozen that the Zags didn’t win either the WCC regular season or the tournament, and again they came up short of that high bar of making the second weekend of the NCAAs. It came in the wake of some transfer defections the previous two years that suggested, well, discontinuity.
So here was Few on the podium Saturday declaring that he’s “never had so much fun coaching as I did this year with this group.”
And he didn’t back off that.
“I don’t want that to take away from past teams,” he said. “You heard (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski) last night say that you’re so blessed – the game gives you so many good times and so many great guys and teams. This team has been incredibly low maintenance … with unbelievable chemistry. And that’s Gonzaga trademark every year.”
The fun started with the inimitable Sacre – he quoted the “Dr. Dolittle” children’s books in his remarks Saturday. But central to the vibe were the freshmen guards Pangos and Bell, who were 30-minute-a-gamers almost upon arrival. More than production, there was tone – poise, toughness, humility, durability and, well, teachability.
“They changed the program,” said Kelly Olynyk, the redshirting 7-footer who will return to action next year along another under-the-radar freshman, Kyle Dranginis.
“I mean, they’ve always had good guards here, back to the beginning of the run. But it was different from the past couple of years and they’re going to mature and get better to a point where they’re going to be a huge 1-2 punch, one of the best in the nation.”
And if the Bulldogs came up short of satisfaction on Saturday, they filled their tanks with determination.
“The next three years,” said Pangos, “are going to be the most fun of my life.”