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John Blanchette: Gonzaga absorbs Santa Clara’s best shot, primarily delivered by Jared Brownridge

UPDATED: Mon., March 6, 2017, 11:42 p.m.

LAS VEGAS – Mark Few met Jared Brownridge in the handshake line and the two took a long moment for a hug and a handshake and some claps on the shoulder, and especially some warm words.

During which, presumably, the Gonzaga coach offered up a letter of recommendation.

“For anything he wants,” Few confirmed.

These are, largely, the unappreciated moments in college basketball, where competitors compete and underdogs hound heavy favorites and everything is harder than a Gonzaga fan – to get specific – feels it should be. And nobody much appreciated Monday night’s 77-68 victory over Brownridge and his Santa Clara teammates in the West Coast Conference tournament semifinals except maybe the Zags themselves and the Broncos whose season is over – or any player or coach who grasps just how hard things are this time of year.

“It’s supposed to be hard,” said Gonzaga guard Silas Melson. “It’s March.”

OK, maybe not this hard.

Maybe not a mere five points up with two minutes to play over a team the Bulldogs had rocked by a combined 66 points in two previous meetings this season hard. Maybe not surrendering nine 3s and too much “my bad” defense, as Few called it, hard.

But as the Bulldogs didn’t get much in the way of challenges during the regular season, they’re cramming for the final.

That comes Tuesday night when they meet old pal Saint Mary’s for the championship, the Gaels spoiling GU’s chance at avenging that Senior Night spoilage by crushing Brigham Young in the other semi. Think the Cougars would trade that win in Spokane for a chance to play again?

As for Gonzaga, this is 20 straight years the Bulldogs have made it to the title game.

Twenty. Straight. Years.

In that context, does it really matter how they get there?

“That streak is amazing,” said Few. “And I take it personally. There are tons of people in Spokane who come down to this – that circle the dates on the calendar back in July or whenever you guys announce it, and spend a good portion of their hard-earned money to come here for a whole week. Our guys have done an amazing job of making their trips worthwhile.”

Hey, and not only his guys.

To bring out the best in the Zags – and those bacon-saving, end-of-game 3-pointers by Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins qualify – requires the best from an opponent.

And Brownridge is among the best the WCC has ever produced.

Fourth on the league’s career scoring list, the quicksilver Santa Clara guard has had his highs and lows against the Bulldogs – but the lows never seem to finish him and the highs never spin him out of control.

This night’s tour de force included arching 3s and nervy drives, often against Gonzaga big men caught in defensive switches. Oddly, massive Przemek Karnowski had the best luck – swatting Brownridge twice at the rim. But Brownridge still got his: 32 points in all, running through “probably 75 or 80 screens,” marveled Few.

“He can shoot off the dribble and off the catch and when you have a guy who can do both, that makes it tough,” said Williams-Goss. “And then he’s the focal point. He got 25 shots. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you have that sort of freedom, it’s a challenge in itself.”

There are a lot of them this time of year.

In this tournament alone, fans have seen Pepperdine’s Lamond Murray Jr. set an Orleans record with 41 points. USF’s Ronnie Boyce III went off for 33 in the quarterfinals against the Broncos – in just 22 minutes. At least Brownridge, who had 28 that game, should get a sniff for the all-tournament team. Seems the least he deserves after three years of never getting out of the quarterfinals.

“Courageous competitor,” said Few. “It’s been an honor competing against him.”

Agreed Brownridge, “It’s been fun.”

In the meantime, the nation’s skeptics and the hometown believers want to know why the Zags keep making it hard on themselves after a season of utter dominance. But maybe it’s not their choice alone.

“People underestimate that these teams are playing for their lives,” Few said. “Their season is going to end, or they have one shot at the NCAA tournament they’ve never ever had. It’s just not easy in March.”

Maybe nobody understands that as much as a coach whose season is over.

“What Gonzaga has done this year is truly remarkable,” said Santa Clara’s Herb Sendek, who has taken three different programs to the Big Dance. “It’s not easy being Goliath. You get everybody’s best shot, everybody expects you to win. But they’ve put together an amazing and memorable season regardless of what happens in this tournament or the NCAAs.

“Any time you’re 31-1 in college basketball, you’ve done something extraordinary.”

Extraordinarily hard. March is no time to expect anything else.

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