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Blanchette: Zags get 29-and-oh-so-close

Thirty and … no.

Not 30. Just 29-1.

How terrible could that possibly be?

It seemed impossible that the Gonzaga Bulldogs would let themselves and their large congregation ever find out.

Not after blitzing through the 2017 part of the college basketball season without so much as a single victory under double digits. Not after pummeling their previous opponent by nearly 60 points. Not after blasting off to an 18-2 lead Saturday night that had the crowd of 6,000 at McCarthey Athletic Center dimpling the ceiling with their roars. Not with a lead – however small – with two minutes to play.

But no, not impossible.

Improbable, then – that certainly describes the 79-71 shocker the Brigham Young Cougars laid on the Zags and all of college basketball, striking a blow against superteams and sending the NCAA seeding committee back to the drawing board one more time.

And the big 30-0? Maybe for another Zags team.

This one doesn’t have time to rue perfection slipping away.

“Obviously, I’m really disappointed,” junior Silas Melson said. “But I can’t hang my hat on one loss. We have the whole month of March ahead of us.

“It feels terrible – to go 29 straight and lose the last one on our home floor. But there’s a whole other season now, and this is something we’ll have to learn from.”

That’s a fact.

The one lesson the Zags hadn’t been forced to learn in their blitz through the 2017 portion of their schedule is how to function in the vise of a tense, one-possession game under the brightest lights. Sure, BYU and Saint Mary’s threw them a couple of funky change-ups on the road, but no one had come with the gas. And no amount of situational scrimmaging in practice can properly replicate it.

“They haven’t had anybody have a lead on them in the second half for a while,” BYU coach Dave Rose said, “and I thought that would be a big emotional thing for us. And an emotional thing for them to have to respond to it.”

And when the Cougars brought the heat, the Zags didn’t handle it. Their vaunted defense balked. They missed free throws – nine in the first half alone. They didn’t box out, allowing a crucial putback in the last 20 seconds. They turned the ball over – point guards Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins combining for 10, two by Perkins in the last minute.

Instead, it was BYU’s kids – not a senior on the floor, and often three freshmen – who did.

“They made the right plays,” Zags senior Jordan Mathews said.

And the Zags discovered how hard it is to make all the right plays every single night. That was as big in the BYU game plan as any X or O.

“We talked a lot about how hard it is to do what they were trying to do,” Rose said, “to try to be undefeated at home, try to be undefeated on the season.

“I’ve been in those spots – not the undefeated season, but trying to win that last home game of the year when you’ve been undefeated at home. Those are hard things to do.”

For the Zags, the hardest thing to swallow was losing on a Senior Night for the third straight season. Missing a chance at being the first West Coast Conference team to go 18-0 was minor bauble.

And since they’ve spent all of February deflecting the notion that 30-0 just had to be their grail, you’ll be happy to know they didn’t flinch from that when it didn’t come to pass.

“To be 29-1?” coach Mark Few said, “and be where we’re at? C’mon, we’d have taken that if offered every time.”

In November and December, sure. Even January. But surely seeing the roll run into February gave them cause to dream. It certainly swept up everyone else – including this newspaper, which had 6,000 congratulatory “30-0” editions ready to hand out at McCarthey at the final horn.

Bonfire, anyone?

“Put it this way,” Mathews said. “What if we’d gone 30-0 and lost in the first round of the WCC tournament, or the NCAAs? It doesn’t mean much then.

“What matters is what you do in March.”

Of course, that’s a be-all-end-all that Few and his staff have tried to temper over the years as Gonzaga’s maddening consistency in reaching the NCAAs – this will be the 19th straight trip – has somehow been overshadowed by their coming up short of cutting down the nets, or even the Final Four.

But in swallowing the most bitter medicine, it was the only way the Zags could think.

Thirty-and-oh?

Nope. Just 29-and-oh-so-close.


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