SAN DIEGO – In the Gonzaga locker room, trainer Jen Nyland set a school record for icebags distributed. Someone eyed a suspicious discoloration on the mascot’s costume and wondered if it was a bruise.
Sitting in front of his locker, Kyle Dranginis looked to be sprouting a black eye, but explained that it was more precisely a broken nose.
Not that it was part of the damages from Gonzaga’s 85-77 foul-a-rama victory over Oklahoma State in the NCAA Noon-Goons-at-the-Y Tournament.
“I didn’t tell anybody but it happened in practice a couple days ago,” the Bulldogs guard explained. “I wanted to play and didn’t want to wear a mask or anything.”
Apparently, the Zags did a great job of mimicking game conditions in practice this week.
There are no prizes for single victories in the bracket until championship Monday, but surely the NCAA generals in Indianapolis could come up with their own version of the Purple Heart for a game like this.
For the fans and viewers, if not for the players.
This was bad television even beyond TNT announcer Andrew Catalon going Archie Bunker on Zags center Przemek Karnowski, who graciously and cheerfully forgave him – thrilled to have contributed a double-double to Gonzaga’s advance to the next round against top-seeded Arizona.
The ugly math: Sixty-one fouls – including two flagrants – plus one technical. Seventy-eight free throws. Running time of 2 hours, 35 minutes. Two-thirds of the audience of 11,196 having bailed by game’s end.
“The last three minutes,” confessed Dranginis, “felt like 45.”
Everyone loves CBS’ traditional tournament wrap-up of “One Shining Moment.”
This was One Shiner Moment.
But, speaking of prizes for opening victories, the Zags have done it again.
For the sixth year in a row, they’ve won their first game, an ongoing streak exceeded only by Kansas (eight) and equaled by Syracuse. For those interested, the Bulldogs have done it as a 1 seed, a 4, a 7, an 8 twice and an 11. The Jayhawks and Orange have never been lower than a 4.
“That’s not quite as amazing as the 16 (NCAAs in a row) streak,” said coach Mark Few, “but it’s amazing. A win in the NCAA is really hard.”
Two is twice as hard, as the Zags have affirmed to much public hand-wringing or, among the schadenfreude crowd, glee.
“First-round wins are good,” said forward Sam Dower Jr., “but we want to make it longer than that. I want to extend my stay as long as I can.”
If they can dial up the same formula Sunday, they might have a chance. From a 9-0 start, the Zags never trailed, making OSU pro-to-go Marcus Smart work hard for all his 23 points and turning back five significant Cowboys surges. A key one occurred just before half, when Drew Barham and Kevin Pangos drained back-to-back 3s; the biggest came after a GU timeout when the Cowboys had closed to 53-50 with 11:18 left.
On the sideline, Few drew up a play “we hadn’t run all year” and Karnowski and Angel Nunez set screens that freed Gary Bell Jr. – trigger man of GU’s hot start but too long silent for Few – for a smooth 3-pointer.
“I was thinking shot before I even had the ball,” Bell said. “We were in a drought and I figured, shoot it.”
That the Zags failed to cash out the Cowboys by making more of their foul shots exacerbated the extreme clunkiness of the affair, but the tone had been set before. Too many early whistles for non-ball exchanges eventually convinced the players that if fouls were going to be called, they might as well commit some.
In general, the assessment was that the Zags were an 8 seed, the Cowboys a 9 and the referees a 16. In the CBI.
“Every call went against us, no matter what,” complained Smart, apparently forgetting the 19 times he went to the line.
But Few stood up for the beleaguered zeebs.
“I think the players appreciated how the game was called,” he said. “There were a lot of fouls. You can’t just succumb because people don’t like to hear whistles, sorry. A foul is a foul. If you do, then we get back into this, ‘Why is scoring down in college basketball?’ They were fouling us. We were fouling them.”
The only fouls that really bothered the Zags were delivered on Sunday, when the pairing came up on the selection show and they were dismissed by too many talking heads who suggested it was Oklahoma State that would be a tough out for Arizona.
“Right when we got selected, it was, ‘Oh, Gonzaga’s not winning that game – Oklahoma State’s gonna win,” said Bell.
“I was like, ‘It’s not gonna happen.’ I want to play against Arizona. I want to be on that stage.”
And here they are. Again.