Jaguars can have cheers, Zags will take the victory

Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos tries to slip between Southern University guards Jameel Grace and Malcolm Miller in the first half. (Dan Pelle)

SALT LAKE CITY – When a 16-seed finally does win one of these morality plays, it’s going to be for all the 16s over the years that should have won.

UNC Asheville. Murray State. Princeton. Especially Princeton.

And Southern?

Maybe even Southern, too. Hard to conclude specifically from the details of Gonzaga’s brush with Armageddon on Thursday that the Jaguars were more deserving, but it was obvious somebody found them more appealing.

“If I wasn’t coaching on the other sideline,” said the Bulldogs’ Mark Few, “they would be a tough team not to root for, you know?”

A good thought that sounds even better when not filtered through regret.

Instead, the Zags – No. 1 in the polls, the seed line and every hater’s burn list – endured and survived on behalf of all those No. 1s who found the weight of the distinction maybe a little heavier than they were willing to admit. Their 64-58 victory over Southern served as the NCAA basketball tournament’s first cautionary tale even without the upset finish, spawning more questions about the Bulldogs’ bona fides and their new station – not that a blowout would have satisfied any.

But it might have made Thursday night’s 3.2 beers go down better for those Zag fans here who spent most of the game in full pout, whether over the play of their heroes, quibbles with the officiating or the fact that the Bulldogs wound up as baddies to the rest of the 14,176 customers.

Someone should have warned them about it being lonely at the top.

“Really weird,” admitted Kevin Pangos. “Especially thinking we were going to have a home crowd here. But people got behind them being a 16 seed, and I can’t blame them.

“Seeing a 16 win one would be pretty cool, right?”

That’s what he was saying afterward, in a locker room thick with survivor’s shock. During the onslaught in the closing minute, he acknowledged, the uncool possibility of being a historical footnote was creating some pucker.

“It crossed my mind,” he said. “I’m not going to lie.”

But, as noted, the Zags are not the first No. 1 to have dodged such a live grenade, even as the 16s fell to 0-114, lifetime.

Here it was the 3-point poise of sophomore guards Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. in the final few minutes that staved off the Jaguars and their worthy dreams. The Pangos shot especially – clock nearly out of ticks, stepping back behind the line for space after a diagonal drive failed to earn the contact whistle he was hoping for – was a thing of stop-this beauty.

But it was also a thing of “They needed that to win?” wonder.

Even Few was among those who wondered.

Long after the final horn, he fingered the stat sheet and tried to unravel it.

“We blast them by 13 on the glass,” he noted. “Only turn the ball over 10 times. We hit 8 of 20 from 3, and they only shoot 39 percent. You’d think…”

It wouldn’t have been that close.

Well, let’s not forget that when the Zags struggle in the NCAAs, the 3-pointer is almost always involved. And the Jags threw in 10, with Derick Beltran doing damage no matter which Bulldog chased him.

But Southern also accepted the challenge at the rim, and for a Zags team so reliant on the broad shoulders up front this seems to be the most problematic moving forward. Yes, Kelly Olynyk had his 21 points and carried Gonzaga much of the second half. But the Jags blocked eight shots and completely bottled up Elias Harris, taking great advantage of a loosely called game. It showed itself on other end, too: Having to contend with Javan Mitchell’s big old self in the post forced GU to give Southern’s shooters room.

“That’s the first big guy we’ve had to double down on forever,” said Few.

Hmm. Doesn’t exactly speak to the quality of bigs in the WCC, does it?

In short, the Jags have a basketball team of which their all-world band can be proud (and the dancers, too, who do a little shaking that isn’t supposed to be legal within 300 feet of schools).

“I don’t know how many 16s you see with 23 wins,” Few said. “What happened to the ones with 14 wins who upset someone in the conference tournament?”

Tournament history is bulging with high seeds who survived humbling starts and went on nice, long runs. As Harris pointed out, “Whether you win in the 40th minute or the first 10, there’s no need to look back and be sad about how the game went.”

But there’s every reason to want to ratchet it up next time out.

“That wasn’t our best basketball,” Pangos said. “We know it. But it’s a new day on Saturday.”

New days being what March Madness is all about.

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