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TV Take: ESPN analysts praise Zags as Final Four team

Gonzaga forward Killian Tillie (33) and guard Silas Melson react after Tillie scored against San Francisco during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Francisco, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
Gonzaga forward Killian Tillie (33) and guard Silas Melson react after Tillie scored against San Francisco during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Francisco, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

When a player scores a career-high 36 points, all while missing just three shots, grabbing 11 rebounds and handing out six assists, it’s hard to say anything negative.

So ESPN’s Adrian Branch didn’t even try.

Branch, the former University of Maryland star, teamed with play-by-play man Eric Rothman to deliver Gonzaga’s 95-80 road win over the University of San Francisco to an ESPN2 audience Thursday night.

And spent most of the night raving over Nigel Williams-Goss.

Why not?

It was Williams-Goss finest night as a collegian, better than any game the junior point guard had with the University of Washington and better than any game he’s had in fifth-ranked Gonzaga’s 15-0 start.

So Branch rolled out the superlatives.

“It may have been an understatement, what Williams-Goss has meant to this team,” Branch said early in the second half, though he neglected to explain what the understatement was.

“When you see him live,” Branch continued, “he makes such key decisions (and) makes the game easier for everyone.”

Branch should know. As a player, he left Maryland as their all-time second-leading scorer, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard who played a parts of three seasons in the NBA and many years overseas.

Now he travels the country for ESPN, finding himself in the cramped confines of War Memorial gym for the WCC contest.

With a front-row seat for Williams-Goss’ performance.

“I’ve never seen him play so well,” Branch gushed, mentioning he watched the Gonzaga guard play in high school and at UW. “There has been no answer for (Williams-Goss) at the point guard position. He’s controlled the game.”

Consider all this came after Branch and Rothman spent the first part of the game talking about Gonzaga’s balance. They spent time praising the Zags’ unselfishness. They talked about them not having a go-to guy. And Branch even spent time pointing out another way Gonzaga has balance.

“Right now you are looking at a balanced team,” he said as the Zags began to pull away midway through the first half. “Defensively, they are active, harassing the 3-point line and keeping San Francisco from their strengths.

“And offensively, everything is clicking.”

It was theme that carried over to the halftime show from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, where former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg and former Duke player Jay Williams held court.

“They have eight starters, essentially,” Greenberg said of Gonzaga, before saying the words GU fans have been hoping to hear for almost two decades. “They are a Final Four team.”

Williams nodded his head in agreement, and pointed out a strength he admired. “They’re willing to defend,” he said. “They are engaged defenders.”

At that point USF, which came in 20th in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage and 11th in made 3-pointers per game (both statistics pointed out early by Rothman), was 2 for 11 from behind the arc.

The Dons got better – they finished 7 of 29, or 24 percent – but never got the lead to single digits.

Though they were within 10, despite Gonzaga shooting 61 percent from the floor and Williams-Goss’ big night, at 55-45 with 14 minutes, when veteran official Tom O’Neill called USF’s Jordan Ratinho for a travel.

The replay showed Ratinho hadn’t traveled, though it didn’t show us USF coach Kyle Smith’s response. Whatever that response was, it earned a quick technical foul from Jimmy Casas, the official in front of the USF bench.

Williams-Goss stepped to the line, made both free throws and – with a little help from O’Neill, who has spent most of his career calling games near his native Chicago – Gonzaga had blunted a USF rally.

But mainly it was Williams-Goss doing that. And Branch singing his praises.

Late in the game, he asked his partner, Rothman for help.

“I’m running out of (superlatives),” he said.

Rothman obliged. But he left the last word for Branch.

“I’m going to ask (Williams-Goss) for his autograph after this one is over,” Branch said.

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