February 14, 2014 in Sports

Gonzaga seniors stayed with it

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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COMING UP
Saturday:
Loyola Marymount Lions at Gonzaga Bulldogs, 5 p.m.
TV: Fox 28 or Root

Sam Dower Jr. and David Stockton came to Gonzaga with one of the largest and most talented recruiting classes in school history.

Dower, Stockton, Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk, G.J. Vilarino, Manny Arop and Bol Kong were the new arrivals on the 2009-10 roster. Dower and Stockton redshirted that first season. Olynyk left after last season for the NBA. Harris concluded a decorated four-year career in 2013. Vilarino, Arop and Kong eventually left Gonzaga.

Dower and Stockton stayed put and eventually found their way into the starting lineup this season as fifth-year seniors. They’ll be joined by Drew Barham and walk-on Brian Bhaskar on Senior Night when the Bulldogs entertain Loyola Marymount Saturday night at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

Dower clicks off accomplishments like he’s reading from a checklist: earned his degree, played on a top-ranked team and No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, played alongside NBA players.

He keeps right on going.

“I met a bunch of wonderful people here in Spokane that will be lifelong friends,” Dower said. “I feel like this is a place I’ll always be able to come back to.”

As the list of newcomers in 2009 indicates, it’s common practice for players who aren’t seeing significant playing time to exit the program. Olynyk, before blossoming into a first-round draft pick, considered transferring but opted to redshirt following his sophomore season. Ryan Spangler departed after his freshman season (2011-12) to return home to Oklahoma.

Dower spent three seasons, a span of 103 games, making seven starts and averaging 16 minutes, waiting his turn behind Olynyk, Harris and Robert Sacre – three of his closest friends, by the way.

Asked why he stayed, Dower’s explanation went beyond basketball.

“I feel like this place was always home, whether I was playing or not,” Dower said. “The people are always so good to me here. No other place could treat you the way they treat you here.

“Whatever my outcome, I was going to be here regardless.”

His outcome, as it turns out, seems to get better by the game. He was derailed by a midseason lower back injury, but when his health returned so did his scoring touch. He’s been the Zags’ most reliable offensive weapon over the last five weeks.

At his current rate of 14.4 points per game, Dower projects to finish just outside GU’s top 20 all-time scorers. John Stockton is No. 20 (1,340), Sacre is No. 21 (1,270) and junior guard Kevin Pangos is No. 22 (1,258).

“He’s such a fun-loving, great guy,” coach Mark Few said. “Easy going, easy-going Sam. In this competitive arena (in which) sometimes you don’t always want easy-going Sam. You want tough Sam to go down and hit somebody, but the numbers he’s posted and the big shots he’s hit over the years is pretty impressive. And big free throws, people underestimate how good he is there.

“He has ice water in his veins. He is who he is, and I think I’m better at accepting that now.”

When Stockton came to Gonzaga as an invited walk-on, some observers whispered that the only reason he was on the roster was because of his dad, John, the Hall of Fame guard and one of two Zags to have their numbers retired.

Stockton tuned out the doubters, other than acknowledging that some of the noise was converted into motivational fuel.

“I don’t really worry about what other people think or why they think I’m here,” he said. “I just tried to play my game and make my own legacy here.”

He’s certainly done that. His playing time and assist totals have increased each season. After an 18-point effort Thursday, he’s at 7.6 points per game, more than doubling his scoring averages as a sophomore and junior.

Stockton ranks sixth in career steals (154) and assists (377). He has a shot at finishing second in steals, behind John’s 262.

“Look at all the games he’s won when he’s been here and playing a lot of minutes at point, all the big plays he’s made from his freshman year on in big moments,” Few said.

The 5-foot-11, 165-pound Stockton has played in 128 of 129 possible games, missing only San Diego State early in his redshirt freshman season.

“He’s tough,” Few said. “I can’t remember what he’s missed, and he’s in numerous collisions and he sticks his nose in there on rebounds.”

Stockton said he chose GU “because I wanted to play with the best and have the opportunity to play at the highest level.” He knew he’d face added scrutiny because of his last name. He’s been the subject of more heckling from fans on the road than perhaps any Zag since Adam Morrison.

“There probably could have been some easier ways to go,” he said, “but it’s the only way I know.”

Barham, a transfer from Memphis who was featured in The Spokesman-Review last week, leads Gonzaga in 3-point percentage (48.5).

“Off the charts with how he handles himself,” Few said, “and how he meshed right in with this group of guys that have been here awhile.”

Bhaskar, who competed for the rowing team in 2010-11, has appeared in 14 games the last two seasons.

“That kid shows up and plays his tail off every day in practice,” Few said. “He’s gotten better. We first brought him in he was kind of a guy on the other team. Now he’s improved his shooting so much we always have him be Tyler Haws or somebody else that can really shoot the ball.”

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Bhaskar said. “I don’t want it to end, but I’m going to try to soak in every second of it.”


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