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Blanchette: In defense of GU, its defense shines

The score crawled across the bottom of TV screens from Ocosta to Ocala, followed by the inevitable chorus.

“That’s Gonzaga,” they said, “in that soft-touch league of theirs.”

Of course. And wearing two pairs of socks will guarantee that your feet never blister, your oil absolutely needs changing every 3,000 miles and eating organic will put 10 extra years on your life.

Good deeds are eventually rewarded. A little knowledge goes a long way.

Truisms rule, and so the Gonzaga Bulldogs will never shuck the burden of the basketball company they keep in January and February. Never. And, no, it probably doesn’t help when they blister somebody by 42 points, as they did in a 95-53 romp over Santa Clara in a welcome return of noise, energy and high-octane hoops to the McCarthey Athletic Center on Thursday night.

Not that the West Coast Conference will ever be confused with the Big East or the Pac-10, nor should it. In places like Malibu, Westchester and the Hilltop, they have some ’splainin’ to do about why the basketball has become so bad.

But sometimes these things are relative.

For instance: The Broncos are not the scariest hombres in baggy shorts, starting three freshmen as they do. The learning curve has been steep – Thursday’s loss was their 12th in 19 games.

And yet those previous 11 losses came by a total of 53 points, against a schedule that’s included Stanford, Arizona, UNLV, Saint Mary’s – six teams in the top 100 of the current Ratings Percentage Index. Just a few nights ago, Santa Clara took the 25th-ranked Gaels down to the last shot in Moraga. The Broncos surrender about 62 points a game and have kept opponents to less than 42 percent shooting, so there’s a plan and a follow-through, if not a reliable finish.

So what the Zags did this night “was the first time anybody has done that to this team,” noted Gonzaga coach Mark Few.

“A lot of teams in the league are playing possession by possession,” he said. “San Diego is trying to play in the 50s. These guys are trying to keep the score down. Portland is. So to extend on someone doesn’t happen very often.”

Well, frankly, it hasn’t happened like this to the Broncos ever – this was their worst WCC defeat in the league’s 55-year history. Few’s point is, you have to play pretty good to do it – and the Zags were better than pretty good.

They shot 55 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc. The crushed the Broncos, one of the WCC’s better rebounding teams, on the glass. They committed just 10 turnovers and pressed the Broncos into 17, several of them turning into a 19-0 edge in fast-break points.

There were workmanlike layups and rhythm 3s and a couple of otherworldly jams by Ira Brown, who set McCarthey records for both altitude and G force.

But in the end – or rather, the beginning – there was defense, and as much as the Zags get dissed for that aspect of their game, maybe it’s about time it stopped.

“Really, it’s been pretty good all year,” Few insisted. “We had a couple of bad halves. We had one against Utah, the bad overtime against UConn and one bad half against Portland State. Other than that, we haven’t had many halves where we’ve allowed teams to shoot 50 percent.”

None, actually.

As a result, the Zags – allowing just 36.9 percent shooting – were 14th nationally in the latest NCAA statistics, hanging with perennial tough guys like Pitt and Washington State and Purdue despite one of the saltiest non-conference schedules in the country.

“We’re just on the fringe of being a top-10 team in that,” said guard Matt Bouldin, “and that’s something we’re striving for. What we focus on now is trying to get three stops in a row. And we’ve been getting a lot of those, enough that sometimes we don’t even realize it now.”

Even with their youth, the Broncos make that difficult because, as guard Matt Bouldin noted, “they run about a thousand sets.” But Josh Heytvelt and Will Foster, with help from the occasional double team, made 6-foot-11 John Bryant work for his 12 points and harassed guard Kevin Foster – who had 31 against Saint Mary’s – into a 3-of-12 night.

“It’s something we have to be able to hang our hat on,” Few said. … “We’re a jump-shooting team and that’s not going to be there night in and night out. We’ve learned that the hard way. And while I’m still hesitant to throw out huge generalizations about this club – things can change week to week – one thing that’s been consistent is our defense.

“But (our defense) only good when we’re dialed in and playing with energy and some toughness. And it starts out there at the point. When Jeremy (Pargo) and Meech (Goodson) are guarding, that gets us going.”

If they keep going, there will be more nights like this. Not that it will persuade the folks at home watching the scores crawl across the bottom of their sets that there’s anything different going on here.

Follow along with the Zags

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