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Grip on Sports: Gonzaga survives GameDay circus and a less-than-stellar game by key contributors

Gonzaga’s Silas Melson, right, drives the ball against Saint Mary’s Tanner Krebs during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in Moraga, Calif. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)
Gonzaga’s Silas Melson, right, drives the ball against Saint Mary’s Tanner Krebs during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in Moraga, Calif. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Gonzaga basketball has been a big story in the Spokane area since 1999. The Spokane area. But I don’t recall as many national resources devoted to one non-NCAA game as there was last night. It was a festival. A carnival. A circus. Was it worth it? Read on.

••••••••••

• Why not? The Zags are ranked No. 1 in the nation, the first time that’s ever happened in the regular season. They are the WCC’s public enemy No. 1. (A role they also play among a certain Palouse-based university’s alumni base.) They had one tough road game left in conference, at No. 20 Saint Mary’s. So ESPN decided to go all out.

And then some.

Not only was the GameDay crew present before the game, they were there during it, sitting down by the floor at McKeon Pavilion. (Honestly, though, let’s call it what it is, a gym. Actually, it’s smaller and more cramped than many Bay Area high school gyms.) They were also interviewed during the first half, leading to Gonzaga running an offensive set while a TV light was shined on the talent’s face on the baseline.

That’s the downside. The upside? Gonzaga won by 10, with Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams leading the way inside, combining for 36 points and 18 rebounds. But there’s a downside to that as well.

(Sorry, but we are going to be the half-empty guy for a moment. It’s a role I was born to play.)

The win showed Gonzaga’s strength, it’s depth and balance. But it also showed its weaknesses.

Nigel Williams-Goss didn’t have his best game, mainly because he picked up a couple cheap first-half fouls. The junior has a tendency to show his disdain for what he considers a bad call and, when dealing with middle-of-the-pack officials as Bob Staffen and former Montana player Deldre Carr (two of last night’s trio, along with solid veteran Mike Scyphers), that oftentimes leads to other bad calls.

Jordan Mathews is not shooting well. He didn’t make a bucket last night and only hit two of his five free throws. For a guy who is a finalist for the Jerry West Award, given to the top shooting guard in the nation, he needs to be more productive than that.

The freshmen big men, Zach Collins and Killian Tillie, were almost non-existent. Tillie played all of four minutes, grabbing one more rebound than, as former GU coach Dan Fitzgerald liked to say, a dead guy. No points, one rebound. And Collins, in a game where the veteran Gonzaga bigs dominated inside, scored six points and fouled out in just 16 minutes.

Finally, the conundrum of them all, Josh Perkins.

Perkins can be either really, really good or, well, not. That’s frustrating for coaches, who value consistency. He was not good last night and not just because of his 1-for-6 shooting. The sophomore guard's decision-making was questionable at best, leading to four mostly shake-your-head turnovers.

Which makes it hard to fathom how the Zags controlled the game throughout and won by double digits, considering the opponent and the venue.

Two words: team defense.

The Bulldogs were bulldogs on the defensive end, dealing with Saint Mary’s myriad ball screens and pin-down action on the weak side. The rotations were solid, the middle stout. The guards chased their Saint Mary’s counterparts off the line all night and the bigs, Karnowski and Williams, erased mistakes inside.

And there was one other factor.

Silas Melson played what may have been his best game in a Gonzaga uniform. His defense, as always, was on point. And the junior guard’s offense – 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including hitting both his 3-pointers – was the jolt GU needed.

If you are on board the top-ranked train, then you’re probably all about Karnowski, Williams, Melson and the nationally celebrated 10-point win. Even if you are a bit more pragmatic, you aren’t worrying about Williams-Goss. You know he is solid to great most every night. But the other chinks in the wall that showed up last night have to be a bit off-putting. Worrisome maybe.

Then again, when your team is 26-0, Alfred E. Neuman may be your patron saint.

•••

Gonzaga: You know who gives you better Zag coverage than ESPN? Yep, this place. Jim Meehan and John Blanchette were in Moraga and covered the game like the comfy throw your grandma knitted back in the day. Jim has the game story, an analysis of what happened, and sidebars on the stars, the bigs and Melson. He also had the keys to the game and a look at the preview bracket the NCAA committee released yesterday. … John goes deeper, with his column on what the win said. … There are other items as well, including numbers, videos and audio interviews, all put together by the S-R staff in Spokane. … Michael Gulledge covered a gathering over at GU and elsewhere. … We contributed with a media column, which, for once, was in a more positive vein (my Anton Ego card may be revoked). … A visit by the nation’s No. 1 team meant there is also coverage all over the Bay Area newspapers. … The Gonzaga women also had a showdown with Saint Mary’s yesterday afternoon in the Kennel. Jim Allen has the game story from the Zags’ 59-58 win while Michael contributes a sidebar and Dan Pelle covers all the action with his photo report. … Williams-Goss has earned an academic award as well. … Around the WCC, BYU got well on the road with a 66-52 win, and the Cougars accomplished it at USF, which is their happy place recently. … Santa Clara got past host Pacific, 64-47. … Pepperdine handed USD another loss. … Portland lost again, this time at Loyola-Marymount, but the Pilots made it close, 66-60.

WSU: It’s been a while since the Cougars have swept a Pac-12 home-and-home series. In fact, one of Ernie Kent’s WSU teams have yet to accomplish the feat. The Cougars get another chance today when they face George King and Colorado in Boulder. Jacob Thorpe has an advance. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12, Oregon bounced back from its loss at UCLA with an 81-70 win at USC. … Without Markelle Fultz, the Huskies don’t have a lot of offense, which probably contributed to a 20-0 first-half run by Utah. The Utes won, 85-61. … No. 9 Arizona held off a spirited upset bid from visiting California, 62-57. … Arizona State shot down Stanford, 75-69.​

Idaho: The Vandals were they 12th consecutive team to play at North Dakota and lose as the Fighting Hawks took an 88-65 win. … The Idaho women knocked off first-place North Dakota.

EWU: The Eagles were scorched a bit at North Dakota, but they bounced back in a big way yesterday in Greeley, holding Northern Colorado down in a contentious 70-44 win. … The women also defeated the Bears. … Around the Big Sky, conference-leading Weber State had to go overtime to get past host Portland State, 96-93. … Montana overpowered host Northern Arizona, 76-59. … Montana State had to hold off Southern Utah, 83-78. … Sacramento State got past visiting Idaho State, 75-63.

Whitworth: The Pirate men assured themselves of a Northwest Conference home playoff game with a 69-62 win at the UPS. … The women lost to the NWC-champion Loggers.

CCS: Both the men and the women picked up road wins at Yakima Valley.

Chiefs: Spokane picked up a much-needed two points with a 4-3 win over Tri-City at the Arena. Josh Horton has the game story.

Preps: The basketball playoffs continued unabated yesterday, with Gonzaga Prep overcoming Central Valley, 54-52, in 4A boys action. Greg Lee has the story. … The CV girls rolled over Richland 63-35. Kevin Dudley has the coverage. … We can also offer roundups from around the area of girls and boys games. … There were also wrestling and gymnastics tournaments.

Seahawks: A handful of Hawks saw their 2017 contracts guaranteed on Saturday. … Dave Boling sees Marshawn Lynch in the hall of fame some day.

Mariners: The bullpen isn’t starting from scratch this year, which may be why some folks think the M’s will have back-to-back winning seasons. … Or maybe it’s because of help from the farm system. Or the new guys.

•••       

• What, me worry? Yes, much of my personality was formed by Mad Magazine. Until later …

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