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

Cream known as Gonzaga rises to the top again

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

By pretty much unanimous acclaim, the West Coast Conference is this year’s Atlantic-10 – which is to say, tougher and more fraught with peril top to bottom than its college basketball pedigree would suggest.

But every consensus deserves a caveat, so here it is:

That doesn’t mean every team is going to be good every night out.

This was affirmed on two different fronts Saturday night, starting at the McCarthey Athletic Center where Gonzaga again basked in the love of the usual 6,000 loudmouths and undressed the Pepperdine Waves 86-62. At least it said “Pepperdine” on the uniforms; otherwise, it was impossible to identify them as the team that was once the closest thing Gonzaga had to a nemesis in the WCC.

Meanwhile, down in the East Bay, Santa Clara dismembered everyone’s flavor of the week, Saint Mary’s, by 23 points. In Moraga. The Gaels, who made 16 of 27 3-point shots in knocking off Gonzaga last week and earning some deserved national bows, this time missed 16 of 18 and shot 26 percent overall. Perhaps they were woozy from the scent of all those bouquets.

In any case, the top of the WCC pile this morning is occupied by – who would have guessed? – the Zags.

Ho, and hum.

You have to figure down the road that Gonzaga will have a night, or multiples, like the Waves and Gaels endured Saturday, but the Zags have been tough to figure all along. Perhaps all those who predicted in advance that they’d bat 3 for 4 against the ranked pitching of November and December, for instance, would care to send in the notarized evidence.

They have seen their senior beacon, Ronny Turiaf, pull himself through his recent funk – to the extent that he cashed in with an inspired double-double against Pepperdine, including a 90-second stretch in the first half where he took over and completely changed the game.

They have found new and different sources of both points and passion every night out. On Saturday, it was utilityman David Pendergraft, whose career-high 14 points picked up some of the slack left by J.P. Batista, who was bedeviled by some odd whistles, and Derek Raivio, the one player the Waves bothered to guard on the perimeter.

Episodically, the Bulldogs show themselves to be as complete a team as some of their more veteran predecessors – though they’re by no means a finished work.

“I don’t think they’re all that different,” said Pepperdine coach Paul Westphal. “They’re very strong inside – they’re an inside-oriented team, but they can protect those guys with shooting.”

Indeed, with Turiaf as the team’s obvious focal point, Gonzaga’s inside-out identity has become so pronounced that the statistics have become curiously skewed in a seemingly un-Zag way.

In each of the last six seasons – can we call it the Zagmania era? – the Bulldogs have shot at least 600 3-pointers and made more than 235, not surprising for teams built around mad bombers like Dan Dickau, Richie Frahm, Blake Stepp and Matt Santangelo.

But based on a 30-game season – which is to say, one with an NCAA appearance at the end – these Zags are on a pace to try just 362 treys, their fewest since 1993 (John Rillie was on campus that year, but he wasn’t yet warmed up).

Westphal took note of that in scheming for the Zags, almost by way of daring GU’s shooters to prove themselves.

“Until tonight, they hadn’t had a whole lot of guys hitting 3s for them,” he said. “So we tried to see if we could take away the inside game. You always have to give something up and those guys showed they can make them, too.”

In truth, the Waves didn’t take anything away from GU. Turiaf was pretty much an at-will force with the Waves’ missing their top two centers because of injuries. But he also showed how much he’s righted himself in how he scored three baskets in that takeover stretch in the first half – a power-up layin when he gathered himself after a botched alley-oop, a turnaround from the post that was balanced and very much unfrantic and finally a rare 3 when the Waves said, “Show me.”

But then, the Waves didn’t get too close to any GU shooter this night, and it showed in the shooting percentages – 60 percent from the field, 8 of 15 from 3. The nasty, suffocating, line-to-line defense Pepperdine prided itself in as the millennium turned is but a memory – and a main reason that none of the last five games in this series has been particularly close.

Had this been a carnival shooting gallery, the Zags would have cleaned it out of teddy bears.

“We’re not shooting as many 3s,” Few allowed, “but we’ve got to be shooting one of the higher percentages overall we’ve ever shot.”

True enough. The Zags are at 51.6 percent on the year, the best since the school-record 52 percent in 1989.

“What we have are a lot of guys who can score in a lot of ways, whether it’s Adam (Morrison) or J.P. or Ronny – and Erroll (Knight) is shooting the ball so much better. Shooting is our strength on this team.”

What hasn’t always been a strength is what Few calls “shot discipline” – though it was stellar Saturday night.

“If we’ve taken three quick shots in a row or a team’s making a run at us, that’s not the time for us to jack another quick shot,” Few said. “We don’t have a great feel for that always. We’re still learning that.”

Who isn’t? When the Zags opened up a 14-point lead early in the second half, Westphal tried to stop the bleeding with a timeout. Barely 15 seconds into the next shot clock cycle, guard Alex Acker launched a 25-footer.

We’re guessing Westphal wasn’t trying to draw up a 14-point play in the huddle.

“It’s a tough league,” said Westphal, whose team also stumbled at Portland on Thursday. “You have to have things going good for you. We didn’t shoot well either place and we didn’t defend well either place, so we go home 0-2.”

To play Saint Mary’s. A good time to compare notes.