Gonzaga is back where it seemingly always is at this time of year.
The Zags are West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament champions for the sixth consecutive season. They’re ranked No. 6 in the AP poll (seems to be a numerical theme shaping up).
Gonzaga’s latest 30-win season was its fourth in six years, and certainly the most unexpected. The Zags absorbed significant personnel losses after reaching last year’s national championship game.
Here are six games – you knew that was coming – that shaped Gonzaga’s 2018 season:
The Zags lost for the first time this season in a wondrous 2 1/2-hour marathon at the PK80 tournament in Portland that still stands as one of the best games of the year. Gonzaga hammered Ohio State one day before, but that didn’t begin to carry weight nationally until the Buckeyes tore up the Big Ten and moved into the AP Top 10.
No. 7 Florida and No. 17 Gonzaga traded haymakers from the opening tip. The lead changed hands 17 times and it was tied 11 times. The Zags led for 23:39; the Gators for 19:51.
Wing Jalen Hudson struck for 35 points and eight of the Gators’ 17 3-pointers. Guards Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen combined for 49 points. GU forward Johnathan Williams was unstoppable inside, hitting 16 of 22 shots and dropping 39 points.
Both teams hit so many clutch shots they became commonplace. Josh Perkins and Killian Tillie fouled out in the first extra session. Hudson, Chiozza and Allen combined for all 16 of Florida’s points in the second overtime.
“Tonight is why college basketball is so great,” GU coach Mark Few said. “Everybody is focusing on the 2 percent that isn’t so great right now, but this is why you guys all cover it, why it’s been a huge part of my life, his (gesturing at Williams) life. It’s the best.”
The Zags established they could play with and defeat quality opponents at the PK80. They reinforced it with an impressive victory over 25th-ranked Creighton at the Kennel.
Gonzaga put up 54 points in the second half, erasing a seven-point halftime deficit. Zach Norvell Jr., making his first start in place of injured Corey Kispert, scored all 21 of his points in the second half. Tillie finished with 22 points and Silas Melson had 21.
Norvell shook off missing his first six 3-point attempts and nailed his last four.
“I’m a shooter, so I never try to get down on myself,” he said. “I had a lot of guys in my ear telling me to stay positive.”
The Bluejays went on to share third place in the Big East, despite losing starting forward Martin Krampelj two weeks later to a torn ACL.
The high of knocking off Creighton evaporated four days later when No. 4 Villanova dominated the Zags at Madison Square Garden.
Villanova junior forward Mikal Bridges soared up mock drafts after torching the Zags for 28 points. Gonzaga couldn’t stop the Wildcats’ 10 3-pointers or their dribble penetration.
Norvell had 22 points, but the Zags stalled with 19 turnovers and without Williams, who was in foul trouble and played just four second-half minutes.
“Just losing focus,” Norvell said. “We were breaking it (Villanova’s pressure), but after we break it, the job isn’t done. We still have to get a shot on goal.”
The Gaels rallied in the last 9 minutes to edge the Zags at the Kennel and take sole possession of first place in the WCC.
Jock Landale scored 11 of his 26 points in the final seven minutes. Calvin Hermanson, who finished with 16 points, stepped up late as the Gaels erased a 61-54 deficit.
Rui Hachimura had 15 first-half points, but the Gaels did a better job defending the sophomore forward in crunch time. He finished with 23 points, but GU’s guards combined to go 8 of 27 from the field.
“We had a couple of empty possessions down the stretch and they didn’t,” Few said. “They have a guy (Landale) they can throw it to that can really deliver, and that was the difference in the game.”
The Zags showed their growth and poise in the rematch with Saint Mary’s three weeks later in Moraga, California. Gonzaga silenced Landale with double-teams. The Gaels still had no answer for Hachimura, who scored 21 points.
GU led 22-5 early and 64-42 with 12 minutes remaining. Williams had 12 points and 11 rebounds. Norvell added 17 points and seven boards, and Perkins contributed 13 points and five assists.
“That shows growth, and signs that we’re getting locked in and trying to get better every day,” Melson said. “In December, we might not have held the lead for 40 minutes. We’re trying to keep focused and keep our foot on the gas pedal.”
Saint Mary’s entered with the highest ranking (11th) in program history, but the setback seemed to hang with the Gaels, who lost their next game to San Francisco and were bounced by BYU in the WCC Tournament semifinals.
The Zags locked up another WCC Tournament title in Las Vegas with a jaw-dropping 36-4 run spanning both halves that turned a tie game into a 63-31 lead.
“It was just a thing of beauty to see,” Few said.
Gonzaga put its best foot forward in its last chance to impress the selection committee. The Zags won 14 straight after falling to Saint Mary’s in Spokane, capped by dismantling the Cougars in front of a national television audience.
Tillie, the tournament’s most outstanding player, made three 3-pointers and scored 22 points. He averaged 24 points and connected on 13 of 14 3-pointers in three victories.
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