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John Blanchette: Sixth straight tournament win just as sweet for Gonzaga

UPDATED: Wed., March 7, 2018, 9:33 a.m.

LAS VEGAS – The last sliver of confetti had settled on the floor at Orleans Arena and the net had been scissored into souvenirs, so the Gonzaga Bulldogs drifted away toward their locker room, champions again.

Who knows? Maybe champions forever.

Then Silas Melson doubled back, remembering one last to-do.

Liberating the trophy. The gold ball had been left on the presentation platform, where it became the centerpiece of a hundred fan selfies while the team took turns on the ladder.

A senior’s job.

For a unprecedented sixth straight year, the Bulldogs carted off the hardware as champions of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament, the crowning achievement an unmerciful 74-54 evisceration of Brigham Young on Tuesday night that bordered on cruelty. If you ever have the notion that this could get old or that routine diminishes value, you need only look in the eyes of a senior.

Melson will leave GU 4-for-4, a tournament winner in all four of his seasons as a Zag, joining the likes of Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Dranginis, Sean Mallon and Derek Raivio.

“But this one was really important,” he said. “You’d hate to lose your last one.”

And so the Zags made it impossible.

Less than 24 hours before, after Monday’s semifinal session, BYU coach Dave Rose boldly declared this his team was “built to win this tournament” – and maybe he was only playing storefront psychologist, what with a couple of players within earshot.

Whatever it was the Cougars thought they’d built, the Bulldogs brought the wrecking ball.

Its forward swing began with an 11-2 burst to close the first half, Josh Perkins’ nervy drive for a layup at the buzzer giving the Zags a 38-29 lead. And then the walls came tumbling down.

Before five minutes were gone in the second half, the lead was 20 and the big blows were yet to come. A 3-pointer by Killian Tillie. A 3 by Melson. A 3 by Josh Perkins. A 3 by Zach Norvell.

The Zags had taken a tie game and turned it in to a 63-31 lead in roughly 10 minutes.

That’s 36-4 for the math-challeged.

“The best we’ve ever had,” said coach Mark Few. “Never been part of a run like that in the 29 years I’ve been at Gonzaga, in any facet. Stifling defense, explosive offense, moving and sharing the ball.

“It was just sit back and let them go.”

It was ruthless, is what it was.

“You know,” said Melson, “that you’re taking the soul out of your opponent.”

But really, that was this team’s special gift.

Because this was the supposed to be season of hope for Gonzaga’s WCC rivals. Core parts of Gonzaga’s 2017 NCAA runner-up team departed. The league’s coaches gamely made Saint Mary’s the unanimous preseason favorite. The Zags then let Gaels steal a victory in Spokane, and some close shaves against the league’s middle class followed.

And all the Zags did was get better – “the road of vindication,” Few called it.

Gonzaga teams routinely feel undersold on a national scale, but none has played the disrespected card with quite the same vigor. But there was substance that ran deeper than chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.

“Maybe there were expectations that have never been placed on players here,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “We’re always expected to be good, but nobody’s ever had to follow up the year that we had last year and these guys were amazing after losing some big pieces and personalities off that team. The day-to-day improvement has been awesome.”

Not always linear, but certainly cumulative. It’s reflected most of all in Gonzaga’s defense – since Feb. 1, opponents have shot just 38 percent.

That’s what did in the Cougars – essentially a three-man attack anyway that the Zags boiled down to one on Tuesday, forward Yoeli Childs, but after netting 18 points in the first half he had just two the rest of the way.

“We were playing with great passion, we were connected, dialed into our coverages,” said Few. “We were proactive, we were physical – all of it.”

And nearly as spectacular on the other end – no one more so than Tillie, the most outstanding player of the tournament in a landslide. He lost his 3-point streak with a miss midway through the first half, so his final tally was just 13 of 14.

“Killian’s a good shooter,” said Lloyd. “I don’t know that I’d say he was a great shooter – but maybe my opinion in starting to change. I don’t know if Kyle Wiltjer could do what he did and he was one of the great shooters I’ve ever been around.”

Back when practices began in October, he was just another gifted possibility who had to fill a bigger role on an uncertain roster.

Now the Zags have 30 wins – for the fourth time in six years. And now with real expectations attached.

“Proud,” said Melson. “Satisfied. But not content.”


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