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Zags playing like they have something to prove

LAS VEGAS – One man’s Championship Week is another man’s Self-Inflicted Wound Week.

It’s brutal out there on the bubble this March. Maryland faints against 10-17 Virginia. Rhode Island stumbles against 12-17 UMass. Penn State, Arizona, South Carolina all lose. Creighton swoons by 24 to Illinois State in the Missouri Valley tournament. Davidson slips up in the semis of the Southern.

More teams seem to be playing their way out of the NCAA tournament – or at least down the bracket – than are playing their way in, which would generally be good news in the West Coast Conference, forever scavenging for the extra bid.

Except that always requires some cooperation from the town bully, too.

And at the moment, the Gonzaga Bulldogs seem to be in a championship state of mind.

Nothing quite symbolized that quite like a sequence about 17 minutes into the WCC tournament semifinals Sunday night at the Orleans Arena, the Gonzaga fan’s latest home away from home. The Zags were starting to put some space between themselves and Santa Clara when Jeremy Pargo drove down the middle and wristed a lob pass to Micah Downs, streaking in from the right wing.

Downs then tried to tip the ball inside to Will Foster, but the Broncos broke it up – and as several sets of hands groped for the loose ball, Pargo made a lunge and stabbed it toward the left corner, then chased it down, braked and lofted up a 3-pointer that found nothing but net.

Not just a spectacular play, but one of uncommon hustle – and in the space of two minutes, a 10-point Gonzaga lead went to 20.

In time, the Bulldogs would double even that spread and turn the Broncos into Santa Clara Upstate in a 94-59 blitz that wasn’t the biggest margin of victory for GU in this tournament, but surely ranks as one of its most complete performances.

“If we had efforts like this every night,” mused coach Mark Few, “we wouldn’t have to improve on anything.”

Oh, they probably could, but it would almost be gratuitous.

What didn’t the Zags accomplish this night? They pulled sophomore Austin Daye out of his recent funk, exploiting Santa Clara’s aggressive approach on ball screens with kickback passes that helped produce 28 points. They found a tempo that unleashed Downs to both slash and pull up for rhythm 3s. Pargo, Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray ruthlessly terrorized the young Broncos guards, who accounted for the bulk of the losers’ 22 turnovers. Even Josh Heytvelt, who struggled through a poor offensive night, made Broncos giant John Bryant work for his final double-double of the season – though his 13 points and 10 rebounds were painfully short of the 24 and 27 he posted in the quarterfinals.

None of this was lost on the Orleans sellout crowd of 7,845, at least half of which had to be swaddled in Gonzaga gear.

“We tried to sneak in (and stay) at the MGM Grand and not tell anybody,” Few marveled, “and they’re all over the place.”

For the 12th consecutive year, then, the Bulldogs will play in the WCC’s title game, and sometimes it seems that only the law of averages has kept them from winning them all. Just getting to this point, however, requires a purposefulness that Few appreciates, especially in light of recent developments.

“The post-season is a little different deal,” he said. “Things get ratcheted up more and you’ve got to make sure you bring it. And the last couple of years, there’s been a little different mind-set. There are teams fighting and playing for their lives, while our guys are basically playing for pride and the WCC championship and (NCAA) seeding.

“You have to have some maturity and maybe we didn’t have it last year – we did not play good in the tournament last year at all.”

This was much better than good.

GU’s offensive efficiency (55 percent shooting) was something to behold and the defense (44 deflections, 14 steals) was more than just disruptive, but what really stuck out was the sheer effort. Gifted and skilled as these Zags are, they also often seem to be on auto pilot. Not this night.

“One of the things we want to focus on is playing hard and not giving up anything easy,” Pargo said, “but also working for what we get.”

Before Pargo’s spectacular play late in the first half, he also ran down an offensive rebound after Daye missed a pair of free throws – beating two lurching Broncos to the ball on the baseline.

“It was outside his area, too,” Few said. “When he’s doing that, we’re so much better. Because it’s not something he always does or Matt always does. That’s that extra effort and desire and focus that we need.”

Pargo endured a rugged January and pulled himself out of it in February, and now seems to be, as Few said, “sensing it’s that time.” He also noted that Pargo, after winning league MVP honors a year ago, didn’t make the all-league team this time around.

Does he have something to prove?

“I don’t know,” Few said. “But I don’t mind needling him a little bit if he doesn’t.”

After a 14-0 run through the WCC season, you wouldn’t think the Zags had anything to prove. But apparently they do.

“We know these last games are precious,” Downs said, “and we want to make the most of them.”

Follow along with the Zags

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