Lately, program needed to identify Zags on floor

Injured Sam Dower – in street clothes – passed to his Gonzaga Bulldogs teammates during pregame warmups on Saturday. (Jesse Tinsley)

The end-of-the-bench Olympics has been a McCarthey Athletic Center tradition since the doors opened. When the home team’s average margin of victory any given season can be 25 points, whether the scout teamers and walk-ons crack the scoring column when the bonfire is down to embers might be the only drama game night can offer.

Well, no more victory cigars.

Now it’s about need.

Ryan Edwards, the big fella Gonzaga pulled out of Montana, had played all of six minutes this season, a nasty bout of tonsillitis complicating the usual callow freshman-itis. But there he was, trundling to check in at the scorer’s table barely four minutes into Saturday evening’s doings against Santa Clara.

Not all that much later came Luke Meikle, who had played 10 minutes all month, and newly eligible Angel Nunez, his uniform still starched.

Somewhere, Jay Sherrell was cursing his bad timing.

All hands on deck. Shuffle up and deal. Duct tape and baling twine. These are the realities of Gonzaga basketball as 2013 turns into ’14, never mind the No. 24 national ranking.

“Every night will be like this,” warned coach Mark Few. “Literally, every night. This is who we are now. Where in the past we might have had enough to have an off night and still win by 20 at home, now we have to fight for our lives every night out.

“And if there’s any night we don’t bring fight, we have no chance.”

And you know what? It will fray a few nerves, but it might be just as entertaining – in an entirely different way – than the ride to No. 1 a year ago.

If the final count – 74-60 – over the Broncos looked comfy enough, it was anything but, and not just because coach Kerry Keating’s six previous trips here resulted in losses by an average of 32 points.

For one thing, at least a few of the 6,000 McCarthey customers had to have arrived cognizant of the early returns of Day 1 of West Coast Conference play. Brigham Young – voted most likely to displace the Zags this year if anyone does – were undressed by Loyola Marymount, which already has about half its roster injured and unavailable for the 17th consecutive season.

If that helps the Zags, it’s still a dicey omen in a year of serial uncertainty in the WCC, what with a new team coming aboard, a high profile coach on NCAA-imposed exile to start the league season and a schedule surely concocted by a committee riding high from its previous triumphs, like New Coke and Crystal Pepsi.

In Spokane, the gloom was a little more tangible. It started with seeing No. 2 scorer Sam Dower in street clothes, feeding passes to his teammates in warmups. Then came Gary Bell wincing from a hand injury suffered in the opening minutes, and another aggravation of the painful turf toe limiting Kevin Pangos. Bell missed the last 8:30; Pangos somehow made it through 35 minutes and had 17 points, though it was hard to remember how he got them.

It was no surprise that the Bulldogs struggled with syncopation, given the mix-and-match lineups and major producers playing hurt. Nunez thinks of himself as a guard, but finished the game at the ‘5.’ All the Zags’ ‘3’ men seem to spend more time as quasi-bigs.

The lone constant seemed to be David Stockton – a career-high 21 points, with a sensational feed to Nunez and a run-and-stop 8-footer that brought the crowd out of terminal nod midway through the second half.

“You just kind of have to revert back to summer ball,” he said of the odd lineups. “You play with everybody and kind of know their tendencies and work with that. The point guard’s job is to make sure the ball goes to the right spot – even if the guys are going to spots they’re really not used to.”

Though his graduation losses were every bit as substantial as Gonzaga’s, Keating acknowledged that, “You could look at this as a missed opportunity, simply because Sam was out and they’re already thin as it is.”

More disheartening for the Broncos was the way they let it get away, turning the ball over on five of six trips down the floor late in the second half – a couple of times when Stockton and Drew Barham simply snatched the ball from the hands of the Broncos.

“We’re just doing what Zags do, man,” Few said. “We’re fighting through it.”

Nunez has seen snatches of that as a spectator in the year he’s been on campus after transferring from Louisville. But he’s never seen a scramble quite like this.

“When your big scorers are there, great,” he said. “But if we can get it done when they’re hurting, that’s good, too. However we do it, we’re a team.”

And that’s very much who the Zags have to be now.

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