Blanchette: Once-hot rivalry now one-sided
LAS VEGAS – Say, didn’t you used to be Gonzaga versus Saint Mary’s?
Where’s the heat? Didn’t the Zags’ Robert Sacre once call this a love-to-hate-them relationship? Wasn’t the Gaels’ Omar Samham a villain of WWE proportions?
Someone put out an APB for the game the West Coast Conference used to love to anticipate, debate and approbate.
It’s become, in a word, a dog.
Or simply the Dogs’.
Possibly this is not a heartbreak for the Gonzaga pilgrims who have once again taken over the Orleans Arena, and on Monday night relished another rout of the Gaels that sent the Zags to their 17th consecutive WCC tournament championship game.
(In a city built on the omnipotence of oddsmakers, a bet on that in 1998 would have resulted in assorted piles of rubble up and down the Strip today.)
In the process, the Bulldogs likely banked an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should tonight’s venture not work out, thought Saturday’s escape against Santa Clara may have done the trick. Whatever, more is always better.
And frankly, more pizzazz in this series would be better, too.
Monday night with the Zags and Gaels – with ESPN inviting everyone in for chips and wings – has been a WCC tradition.
But now with the tournament having nearly as many days off as play days, Monday is no longer the destination but a milepost. Hint No. 1 that this rivalry ain’t what it used to be.
Hint No. 2: Gonzaga 70, Saint Mary’s 54.
That was Monday’s arithmetic, the Gaels first shredded by Gary Bell and then David Stockton, with scene-stealing cameos by assorted castmates – not the usual order of billing when the credits roll.
But the fact is, the rest of it was just more of The New Usual.
Gonzaga defended the Gaels all the way out to the craps tables. Yes, center Brad Waldow came alive after two showings of general helplessness earlier this season, but he was all simply all the Gaels had, and wore himself out to the point coach Randy Bennett sat him for 5 1/2 minutes in the heart of the second half.
But even before that, the Zags essentially settled the issue with a sequence in which Stockton missed a free throw that would have completed a three-point play, Drew Barham scrapped for the rebound and Bell hammered in a 3-pointer after a timeout for a 45-31 lead.
The Gaels didn’t surrender, but the flag waving in the cheering section looked to bear the image of Alfred E. Neuman.
But it may have looked that way from the onset.
Gonzaga romped by 22 and 28 points in the two regular-season meetings, and neither was that close.
“They gave us problems last year, too,” Bennett said.
Sure enough, the Zags won by 14 in the WCC title game, 17 at Moraga and had a 20-point lead in Spokane before deciding to mail the rest in and letting the Gaels come within a missed Matthew Dellavedova 3 of forcing overtime.
Remember him? The Mighty Mouthpiece?
His heir, Stephen Holt, is a smooth and capable player, but his big nights have come mostly against the middle-and-lower WCC teams. The Zags “make him see a lot of eyes,” as Stockton put it – the first pair being the tiger’s glare of Bell – and the attention turns him into another supporting actor.
As noted, GU’s usual stars didn’t shine, either. But Stockton followed up his game-winner over Santa Clara with a career-high 21 points – plus six rebounds, four assists, a steal and no turnovers, making him the leader in the clubhouse for tournament MVP.
“Some of it is, we don’t guard him,” Bennett said. “Their bigs are such a big factor that you have to help somewhere. He made us pay tonight.”
If that sounds stubborn, well, a game plan’s a game plan. Besides, SMC’s bigger problems have been at the offensive end.
They’ve scored 51, 47 and 54 against the Zags this year. They’ve shot a collective 30.7 percent from the field, and just 8 of 38 from 3.
“Saint Mary’s doesn’t make a lot of adjustments – and that’s probably what makes them pretty good,” offered Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “They do what they do. For some reason, what we’ve did to them really worked and they didn’t have any significant adjustments to it.”
This is not the Zags’ problem. For example, Lloyd pointed out that “they really dominated our bigs today” – Sam Dower making just 2 of 11 shots, and Przemek Karnowski scoring just two.
“If you told me that and said we’d win by almost 20,” he said, “I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Hard to believe, too, that this series has gone sideways. Maybe that will cycle back. In the meantime, Gonzaga’s in yet another championship game.
Not a cycle, but a certainty.