STOCKTON, Calif. – Gonzaga had just absorbed a painful loss late Thursday night and expressionless players filed out of a silent locker room inside McKeon Pavilion.
The shot clock was already ticking on the Zags’ next game less than 39 hours away.
“Short (time) to bounce back,” coach Mark Few said. “A gut-check game, definitely.”
Gonzaga (14-5, 6-2 WCC) is in this position after blowing another double-digit, second-half lead in a 70-67 loss to Saint Mary’s. It’s familiar territory for Pacific, the Zags’ opponent Saturday at 1. The Tigers have faced adversity for months during an ongoing NCAA investigation into academic violations.
Head coach Ron Verlin and assistant Dwight Young were suspended indefinitely Dec. 11. Key players Alec Kobre, Eric Thompson and Sami Eleraky were suspended at the outset of the season. All three have been reinstated. Eleraky missed 11 games, Kobre six and Thompson returned just two games ago.
Assistant coach Mike Burns was promoted to interim head coach, inheriting a messy situation that doesn’t make the pages of a coaching manual.
The former Eastern Washington and Community Colleges of Spokane head coach said there were two times when it was “really tough.” One, when the players were informed of Verlin’s and Young’s suspensions. Two, when Pacific self-imposed a postseason ban.
“I basically told them we can be victims and people will feel bad for us and our circumstances or we can dig our heels in and fight,” said Burns, an assistant at San Diego under Bill Grier the last seven seasons. “The guys decided to fight.
“Our goal quite simply is this: Let’s win more WCC games than any Pacific team has won since returning to the conference (three years ago), and that number is seven or above.”
Pacific, one of the WCC’s more experienced teams, took another step toward that goal, outscoring Portland 10-2 to close out a 70-61 victory Thursday.
The Tigers, 1-6 when Burns took over, are 6-12 overall, 4-4 in conference. They are 12-deep with their complete roster. Wing Ray Bowles (12.0) and guards Kobre (11.8) and T.J. Wallace (11.2) are the top scorers.
“This team was constructed to be kind of an inside-out operation,” Burns said. “We lost Sami and Eric so there went a large portion of our frontcourt depth. We had to alter how we played. With those guys (back) we have an opportunity to throw the ball inside (more). Alec gives us a 3-point shooting presence.”
Meanwhile, the Zags are still searching for a winning formula in tight games against quality competition. Turnovers, missed free throws and empty possessions have been common themes in five narrow defeats.
“I believe in my teammates,” said sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis, the last player to exit the locker room. “And we’ll come out strong and play hard.”
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