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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Seed sows GU victory Valpo perfect victim in Zags’ ragged victory

Seeding matters. And Gonzaga University found out just how much Thursday night while stumbling past Valparaiso 76-49 in the opening round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in KeyArena. At an earlier time, and with a double-digit seed like they used to get in this event, the Bulldogs might not have survived. But armed with a No. 2 seed - the highest in school history - and paired against the 15th-seeded and outmanned Crusaders, the Zags found a way to advance on a night when they didn’t have a lot of good things going on. The victory, as ragged as it was, raised GU’s school-record winning streak - the longest in the nation - to 21 games and moved the Bulldogs into a second-round showdown against 10th-seeded Nevada, 24-8, on Saturday. That one tips off at 12:20 p.m., and the Zags will need to shore up some nagging problem areas if they hope to deal successfully with the Wolf Pack, a 72-66 first-round upset winner over 7th-seeded Michigan State. “Luckily, we got that No. 2 seed,” senior Tony Skinner said following Thursday’s win, which was witnessed by a sellout, but relatively benign, crowd of 15,827. “If we come out that slow against any other team, it would have been a lot harder to come back.” The normally efficient Bulldogs, who came in shooting 51.5 percent from the field, opened each half with ragged runs that included poor shooting and some suspect ball handling. They made only two of their first seven shots and turned the ball over three times in their first six possessions. But the Crusaders (18-13) seemed intent on matching the Zags miss for miss and turnover for turnover. They finished the game shooting a season-low 28.6 percent (18 of 63) from the field, made only 6 of 23 3-point tries and lost the rebounding battle 46-31. And when Cory Violette and Ronny Turiaf finally got around to flexing their muscles midway through the second half, the suspense factor quickly plummeted to the same depths as the game’s aesthetic value. “That’s just who we are,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said of the rescue work turned in by his bigs. “We’ve attacked inside-out for five years now. Even back when we had Blake (Stepp) and Dan Dickau in the backcourt, we tried to attack inside-out early. “This year we have the luxury of Cory and Ronny, and Sean Mallon scored some huge baskets when we were struggling to score. I like our guys’ resiliency. They just hung in there and, finally, the dam broke.” On a night when Stepp, the reigning two-time player of the year in the West Coast Conference, couldn’t throw it in the ocean, Turiaf scored 15 points, 14 of which came in the second half, and Violette contributed a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double, the 29th of his career. The Bulldogs, who also got 10 points from freshman Adam Morrison, overcame their early shooting woes to finish 29 of 54 from the field. But they turned the ball over 15 times against only moderate defensive pressure and missed 10 of 25 free throws. Stepp missed his first nine shots - eight of them 3-point tries - and didn’t score his first field goal until the 5:44 mark of the second half. Still, he finished with 13 points and nine assists. “They did a good job of staying with me all over the court,” said Stepp, who scored eight of his points on free throws. “They picked me up full court in dead ball situations and harassed me on the outlet (pass). I had some open shots, but they weren’t falling.” And the fact that Valpo was unable to make any major gains with Stepp struggling was at the root of much of the Crusaders’ postgame funk. “It was really frustrating to see how he was the best player on their team and he didn’t score, and yet they still increased their lead,” said Valpo’s Jimmie Miles, who was shadowing Stepp most of the second half. “Turiaf and Violette were just really excellent,” Crusaders coach Homer Drew said. “I really have to compliment Gonzaga. Hopefully, they will go on and win the whole thing so we can say we lost to a national champion.” The Bulldogs looked like anything but in the early going when they fell behind 10-3. But a Valpo scoring drought that lasted almost 4 minutes let the Zags back in. And then Mallon, who finished with six points, came off the bench to score on a couple of nifty inside moves that seemed to ignite the Bulldogs. GU was up 36-24 at halftime and then managed to overcome 1-for-5 shooting and a pair of turnovers immediately following intermission to take control of the game for good on back-to-back inside buckets by Turiaf and Violette. “We didn’t play our best game, but we were able to dig one out,” said senior guard Kyle Bankhead. “We had to shake the rust off a little,” added Violette in reference to the Zags’ 10-day layoff between the finals of the WCC tournament and Thursday’s start to the NCAAs. “But, competitively, whatever happened here tonight, we were going to come out on top. “We didn’t play great, but we persisted, and I think that’s a good trait of this team. We just keep going.”