January 25, 2014 in Sports

Finally healthy, Zags ready to rock WCC

John Blanchette Correspondent
Colin Mulvany photo

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.
(Full-size photo)

The band is back together. Now comes the tour.

They may want to print up souvenir T-shirts to sell at the shows. One caveat: Highway to Hell has already been used, and a little over the top anyway.

But if the West Coast Conference isn’t necessarily a little slice of inferno, the Gonzaga Bulldogs had their backsides singed just enough in the first venture out of the Kennel to know all the possible perils.

And Saturday night gave them a much-needed reminder of just how good they have it at home.

“I left the gym on Thursday thinking it’s not as loud as it usually is,” said senior guard David Stockton, whose local roots give him the best database on din levels at McCarthey Athletic Center.

“Today, they shut me up.”

And in the course of an 84-69 dissection of Brigham Young, maybe the Bulldogs shushed some snipers out there who’ve spent the season pointing out just what they weren’t, and allowed all to see what they are.

That would be 18-3, folks. And 8-1 through the first half of the WCC schedule.

A good report card any year.

In the wake of losing two players to the NBA off a team that ended the 2013 regular season ranked No. 1, having two starters miss eight games between them in league play and an assortment of other obstacles and oddities – four home games with no students in a library-quiet Kennel come to mind – “good” is hardly a good enough descriptive.

“We had lots of excuses, but we didn’t let it effect us,” said coach Mark Few. “Now we’re going to have to be just as tough or tougher, as we head out with the majority of (the rest of the games) on the road.”

If that doesn’t seem so frightful, consider that BYU – considered before the season as the team with the best chance of unseating the Zags – is a cool 2-4 on the road within the league.

And the Zags are hardly invulnerable. On this night, for instance, their big guys played for the longest time with a fierce determination not to rebound. But, really, all that produced was more bang for the entertainment dollar, keeping the game closer longer.

But the real entertainment came in watching the WCC’s best backcourt reunited at last, and living up to any and all superlatives.

Not immediately, mind you. If not for Stockton’s fearless slashes into the key and under the basket against the BYU zone in the first half, the Cougars might have worked up a whole lot more confidence that they could salvage a sweep out of their Northwest swing. The 5-foot-11 senior had 12 of his 14 points by halftime, matching WCC scoring leader Tyler Haws of the Cougars – a statistic pretty much no one anticipated emerging from their prefunks.

After intermission, he mostly surrendered lead and rhythm guitar to Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, and did the Zags ever rock.

“I just tried to pick my lanes and attack the basket,” Stockton said. “They weren’t stopping me in the first half, so I could get layins and stuff, but in the second half they were (forcing) kickouts – and with Kevin, everyone knows he’s a dagger when you get him out there. That’s a great play for our team every time.”

Pangos, hunting his shot with more purpose in the second half, did indeed produce 24 points on 6-of-10 beyond-the-arc shooting – a welcome uptick after a fortnight of 5 of 21. But the real revelation was Bell, sidelined for six games with a broken hand and obviously tentative in his return against San Diego on Thursday. He was anything but in the second half, throwing himself into heavy traffic and knifing to the rim.

“The hustle play where he tipped the ball out on an (out-of-bounds play), I thought was the play of the game – with the finish at the other end,” said Few, referencing a play that gave the Zags their first double-digit lead.

Carving up the Cougars is not necessarily the hardest-to-earn merit badge. Since BYU hitched its wagon to the WCC, its defensive shortcomings have been exposed in big games (and some not-so-big). But the Cougars are long, and their preferred pace can produce some anxious turnovers. Just not this night: Bulldog guards combined for just two.

Ever the coach, Few appreciated watching his veteran guards work in synchronization but then noted that even that “presents some problems.

“We got some really good play out of other guys while some guys were gone,” he said, picking out Kyle Dranginis and Drew Barham in particular. “We have to find an effective way to keep those guys engaged and helping us – and at the same time, play those guys who have been here and done that, basically.

“But we’ve got to find spots for all those guys. They deserve it.”

And they’re all part of the band.

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