Junior guard Kevin Pangos said something had to change.
Senior forward Sam Dower Jr. called it a reality check. Junior guard Gary Bell Jr. noted that the team had to start playing hungry.
They were referring to the tenor of a team meeting that took place after Gonzaga’s 0-2 road trip versus BYU and San Diego nearly a month ago. Two winnable games had slipped away and the Zags’ stroll to another WCC title and NCAA tournament bid was suddenly in jeopardy.
Gonzaga was outworked on the boards and seemed to get beat to every loose ball in a 73-65 loss to the Cougars in Provo, Utah. Coach Mark Few said afterward: “You had to have your helmet on tonight and a couple of our guys didn’t.”
Two nights later, the Zags sputtered offensively in the final minutes and lost 69-66 to San Diego.
So, they talked about it prior to a practice the following week. Then they tried to do something about it.
“We talked about playing hungry, playing hard,” junior guard Gary Bell Jr. said. “Play hard for one another and not just for yourself.”
Gonzaga responded with five straight wins, all away from the McCarthey Athletic Center. In the process, the Zags locked up WCC regular-season and tournament titles and demonstrated a tougher mind set.
They won easily on the road against Pacific and Saint Mary’s to close the regular season, survived a WCC tournament quarterfinal scrap with Santa Clara and then posted double-digit victories over the Gaels and Cougars to secure their 16th straight NCAA trip. Eighth-seeded Gonzaga (28-6) brings some momentum into Friday’s matchup with No. 9 Oklahoma State (21-12) in the West Regional in San Diego.
“Just that we had to make a change and whatever we did on that road trip wasn’t good enough,” said Pangos, when asked about the content of the meeting. “Everyone had to buy in to get where we wanted to be.
“Everybody has been playing more aggressive on defense, offense, and just with more fight in them. We’re not playing just to get by. We’re actually playing to fight and win the game and dominate.”
The Zags won their last five games by an average of 14.8 points. After scoring in the 60s twice on the 0-2 road trip they have been at 70 points or better in the last five.
The biggest difference has been on the defensive end. Santa Clara made 50 percent of its shots and 37 percent of its 3-pointers in a 77-75 loss to GU. The other four foes combined to make 32 percent from the field, 27.5 percent of 3s and averaged 54.5 points.
GU lost the rebounding battle in three of the five games but dominated the assist-to- turnover ratio in the four games other than Santa Clara.
“They kind of drew a line in the sand,” Few said. “They came together, more unified with a purpose. They’ve always been together but they probably saw that the season wasn’t getting any younger and it was time to make it happen.”
Dower didn’t talk during the meeting but he agreed with all he heard.
“Coming off those two losses we think we should have won those,” Dower said. “We just needed a reality check. We talked about it and decided we were going to fight for each other and that’s what we ended up doing, players and coaches.”