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Blanchette: Zags punctuated win over Gaels with exclamation points

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 15, 2017, 2:29 a.m.

Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams erases a shot by Joe Rahon of Saint Mary’s, Jan. 14, 2017, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams erases a shot by Joe Rahon of Saint Mary’s, Jan. 14, 2017, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

On a night they were tasked with making a statement – for the country if not themselves – it turns out the Gonzaga Bulldogs lacked the proper punctuation.

All they had were exclamation points.

Good thing, too. The extra juice was necessary to be heard above the Kennel Club-supplied din bowing the walls of McCarthey Athletic Center on Saturday night.

Besides, who wants to settle for statements, anyway?

The scoreboard will still start at 0-0 the next time the Zags tip it off, but the memory of the long ball they parked in a 79-56 burn of Saint Mary’s will sustain their devotees through the end of the month, anyway – and presumably won over a few of the skeptics still extant after Gonzaga’s unbeaten start.

Which has dragged on into an unbeaten middle, with no predictable end in sight.

Not that the Bulldogs will be letting down their guard.

“It was a big-time statement,” said junior forward Johnathan Williams III, “but this is just a pit stop. We’ve got to get back on the highway.”

OK, but as pit stops go, this was lube, oil and filter and not just a measly tire change.

And before we abandon the automotive narrative …

“I got a flat tire the other day and I made a promise to the police officer who helped me,” Williams said, “so I want to give a shout out to him – I thought his name was Lutz.”

Perhaps he’ll be there to help the Gaels, whose wheels came off Saturday night.

“We totally lost our composure as a team and we’re too experienced, too good of a team to do that,” said Gaels coach Randy Bennett. “It should have been a good game, but we didn’t do our part to finish it.”

No, all the finishing was done by the Zags.

That included the first half, which was capped by a 12-2 run and a stretch in which the Zags made nine straight shots. In the meantime, the Gaels turned it over three times and were one of their last five – with two those of those sent away by Williams.

And then there was game’s end – a 21-4 finish.

There were two signature moments in that run: Nigel Williams-Goss swiping the ball from SMC’s big Jock Landale in the post and rocketing a pass to Williams for a dunk, and the Gaels’ Joe Rahon watching yet another runner circle the rim and roll off, and then sagging in exasperation.

Those flourishes made it difficult to remember that this was a mega-hyped meeting of the Nos. 5 and 21 teams in the nation – or 6 and 13 if you like the more sophisticated analytics of kenpom.com. But that made it all the more impressive on Gonzaga’s end; one stumble doesn’t undo what the Gaels have done, or what they might be capable of doing.

But on this night, they had little success taking away anything the Zags tried on offense – the three Gonzaga transfers, Williams-Goss, Williams and Jordan Mathews were particularly efficient – and succumbed under the swarm and swat of the Bulldogs defense.

The swarm was GU’s guards stifling Rahon and Emmett Naar, who make the Gaels go – but made just five of 20 shots. The swat was Williams, who had five of them that “were big momentum swingers,” said teammate Silas Melson.

“He was really special tonight,” said coach Mark Few. “He’s been up and down all year, trying to find his niche for us, and when he’s playing athletic and attacking like that, it makes a whale of a difference with our team.”

The transfer’s adjustment is too often understated, especially in a program like Gonzaga’s where the sets and demands can be complicated – and, this year, where four or five teammates might be averaging in double figures. And, frankly, on a 9-23 team his sophomore year at Missouri, Williams didn’t play in too many showcase games.

“Arkansas was a rivalry, a border game,” he said. “Any time Kentucky or Florida came to town you got hyped for. But in those games we were the underdogs. Here, you’re expected to win – not to be cocky. You’re expected to do great things.”

Williams didn’t just sit back and Big Papi shots, but like all the Zag bigs helped diffuse the Gaels’ high ball screens – a serious challenge against the clever guards SMC seems to breed.

“But if you think about it, NBA players have to do it all the time,” Williams said. “Guys have to switch out on Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving and guys like that. They might not win every battle, but they can win the war – that’s how you have to look at it.”

The season, too. More battles await, especially as the Gaels regroup for Project Revenge in Moraga.

But for now, a statement – wait, an exclamation.

“That was the goal,” Melson said with a smile.

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